As spring break approaches, many Saint Joe’s students are ready for a breather. Between presentations, essays, and midterms, many of us need to get the heck out of dodge (myself included). While some retreat to beaches, oversea vacations, or simply their own bed at home, a handful of Hawks will be dedicating their breaks to others, not to themselves. These select students will travel to various impoverished areas in Appalachia to serve, rebuild, and most importantly, leave these communities a little better than they were before they arrived. This widely popular service trip is known as APEX. In fact, it is so popular that the limited number of spots available fill up within an hour.

You may be asking yourself, Why would someone want to give up their spring break to travel to a faraway and foreign place– some without so much as clean running water–when they could be lounging in their pajamas at home until 4 in the afternoon? This is a valid question. However, in shocking numbers, students readily and happily volunteer repeatedly through their years at SJU. We have interviewed two students in search for the answer to this question: one senior, Tess, who has been on APEX a commendable 3 (soon to be 4) times throughout her college career; and freshman Brian, who is eagerly awaiting his first glimpse of APEX next week. While one is going into APEX 2018 with familiarity, another is going in with nervous excitement and questions of what is to come.

Eighteen-year-old Brian has been thrilled with his SJU experience thus far. However, Brian wants something more in spring break than 13 hour naps and Fortnite binges. When asked why he signed up for APEX, he stated “I have heard so many great things about it. Since a lot of these communities are rural and isolated, the residents are so excited to see new faces. I made the final decision to sign up because I love service and, even though I am a little nervous, I know it will be a rewarding experience.”

But why nervous? When we asked, he responded “I have heard that, in some places, there is no running water, so sometimes people had to go the whole week without showering. I have also heard that  sometimes issues have arisen with residents of Appalachia regarding drug use. Although these things do make me nervous, it will give me an insight on how other people live day-to-day, and give me a deeper appreciation of all that I have.”  These apprehensions are common among APEX virgins. In some cases, these apprehensions are what keep doubtful students from making the decision to sign up.

With these things in mind, we interviewed APEX veteran, Tess, about what her experiences have given her (and if she can ease the nerves of anxious first-timers). Tess’ travels have brought her to Neon, KY; Lantz Farm, WV; and Guyan Valley, WV. In a week, she will be journeying to Greenbriar County, WV to finish off her fourth and final APEX.

As a political science major, Tess commented that one of the most fascinating parts of the service trip is immersing herself into communities without a stable government to rely on. Throughout her trips, she has bonded and come to love the people of Appalachia. In addition to helping those in need, Tess emphasized the good it did for herself.

“I keep signing up for APEX because it not only gives students much needed service and immersion experiences, it also allows students to press a reset button on their semester. It lets us ask, what’s the point? why are we here and how can we serve with and for others even better? While on trips, I always learn about the communities and their needs, but I learn a lot about myself as well.”

But why sign up every year? Isn’t experiencing it once enough? To this, she says, “each experience is unique and allows you to grow even more! Additionally, no two Appalachian sites are the same, so students are able to learn a more holistic view of the problems that impact Appalachians.” As APEX ‘18 begins shortly, Tess is eager to experience it alongside the same young freshmen that she was just 3 years ago.

After considering both perspectives, we are led back to our original question: Why do it? From what Tess has told us, APEX is a deeply rewarding journey that every student should embark on at least once, if not more than that. As Brian prepares himself for this spiritual reset, he will find comfort in knowing that he is walking alongside seniors like Tess who will guide him and show him why it’s all worth it.

To all of the other first-timers reading this, we wish you luck as you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, wander to those new destinations, and ask those important questions. Although you can hear about the experiences of others, one must truly venture out, exit the comfort zone, sacrifice the 13 hour naps, and step into an unfamiliar and rewarding experience all their own.

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  1. Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND (A non-religious novel about troubled folks in Appalachia, where there are just good days and better days.


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