Returning to the College in 2011 from a service trip to the Greek island of Zakynthos, Colleen Sullivan decided to reprioritize her life. Time abroad, away from the familiar, had given her the chance to reflect on who she was and who she wanted to be. Jumping back into the rhythm of campus, Sullivan began an internship with the College’s Office of Sustainability and started a position with the College’s Center for Civic Engagement that allowed her to spread her love of service and travel. The Greek isles – enchanting yet a tad overcrowded in places – had opened her eyes to a much broader world.
While on Zakynthos, Sullivan and other College students donated their time to the conservation group Earth Sea & Sky, which seeks to protect wildlife like loggerhead turtles, monk seals and Montpellier snakes. Inspired by the small sanctuary Earth Sea & Sky had established for endangered animals, Sullivan decided to refocus her academic studies on sustainable tourism and her personal time on serving others. She changed her major to international studies with a minor in environmental studies and began organizing student service-learning trips, including some Alternative Spring Breaks, through the Center for Civic Engagement. Among the trips she organized were one to Ireland to work on an organic farm and one to Asheville, N.C., to volunteer at a shelter for homeless war veterans.
“It gave everyone a new lens to look at the homeless population through,” says Sullivan. “You felt their stories.”
When taking these trips, Sullivan is less impressed by the scenes on the postcards and more by the personal growth that can occur when traveling and the connections that one can make to another community. Furthermore, she’s come to realize that the problems in other places, such as homelessness or the encroachment of natural areas, are often problems back home, too.
“Alternative Break gave meaning to my college experience,” says Sullivan. “This has inspired me to pursue a career in higher education so I can empower other students to find what they are passionate about.”
This past summer, Sullivan returned to Earth Sea & Sky on Zakynthos to lead a student group with co-leader Jenna Barbaruolo ’13, who had been with Sullivan on the 2011 trip. Barbaruolo credits Sullivan for being an extremely organized and dedicated leader, one who’s intent on making the trip memorable for all participants. With Sullivan, Barbaruolo says, you strive to be a traveler, not a tourist, and to immerse yourself in the culture of your destination. The result is that, while the trip is temporary, the personal enrichment is permanent.
“When you come back to Charleston,” says Barbaruolo, “you bring back all these memories and experiences and you continue growing.”
Sullivan feels the same. Traveling through service gives perspective, and each time she’s returned to Charleston, she’s come to embrace the College and her fellow students in new and more meaningful ways.
“Before these trips, I wouldn’t say I had a focused passion. I didn’t have the determination to find out what’s next,” says Sullivan.
This school year, Sullivan is working within the Center for Civic Engagement to train other trip leaders. It’s a chance to pay it forward and help students make the most of their travels and service experiences.
“The most amazing part of what I have done here at the College is seeing other students change once they return from a trip,” says Sullivan. “If I did not sign up to participate on my first trip to Zakynthos, I don’t know where I would be today.”