Traditionally, spring break calls to mind images of white sand beaches and scorching sunburns or a week spent on the couch recovering from the trauma of midterms. In 2003 though, four ambitious students from the University of Minnesota saw a different vision, one in which the legendary week could be spent working with a diverse community of other college students to serve others across the country.
To make this vision a reality, they formed the organization, Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF), which centers on revealing leadership in college students through service, relationships, and action. In the spring of 2004, the new members embarked on the inaugural STLF Spring Break Service Trip. Since that original journey, there have been nearly 800 subsequent service tours throughout the US!
In March of 2018, two of our Minnesota State University Mankato (MNSU) honors students, Hunter Herber and Melanie Bengston, decided to take the leap and embark on an STLF tour to Denver Colorado! The bus tour departed from MNSU and took them through South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska. Over nine days, the crew stopped in six different cities where they performed a variety of service projects which ranged from cleaning a zoo, to assisting with building a home. Along with serving each community, Melanie and Hunter had the opportunity to explore local attractions, and of course, connect with fellow students on the trip. Here are their stories!
Hunter Herber (Biomedical Sciences ’20):
My decision to go on the STLF Spring Break Trip was very spur of the moment. I only found out about it two weeks before we left. As soon as I heard about it though, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I mean, a service trip going to Denver, Colorado?! What more would a person need to hear?!
The projects that we worked on during the trip truly helped me to grow as a person. My group assisted with cleaning a summer camp, renovating a hallway house, painting a local church, renovating a low- income apartment complex, building a home for a family in need, and cleaning a park. These experiences enabled me to see that there are people all across the country who are far less fortunate than we are, and there is a lot that even just a small group of people can do to make a difference in the lives of many. Also, through working with the others, I became more confident and was able to come out of my shell. By the end of the week my team members were identifying me as a group leader. Because of this growth, I am hoping to be “bus-core” (one of the student facilitators and leaders) on the MNSU STLF trip next spring!
The best part of this trip was by far the friends I made. I know that people say this a lot, but it’s totally true. We left as strangers, but after spending 9 days on a bus with one another and sleeping together in YMCAs and churches, came back closer than any other group of people who just met. Now, it is honestly like we can’t stay away from each other! Because of this closeness, I know that I can count on these people as a support system now and in the future.
My STLF spring break trip has impacted my future in many ways. The most obvious one is that I have decided to pick up a certificate in Nonprofit Leadership. Being a part of this organization was one of the best times of my life. Being able to recreate this experience for others in my future, while also serving the underserved, would be a dream come true.
I have so many good memories from this trip that I can’t pick a favorite. However, there were some that were extra special, like getting to see people open up about the struggles they’ve had in life. Everyone was able to feel comfortable sharing something that has been tough for them to get through, because our group was so understanding and supportive. Another really special result of this trip was getting to see the impact we made on those we served. The gratitude seemed to radiate from them. This was cool, because it showed us that what we were doing really did make a difference.
Melanie Bengston (Special Education ’20):
The STLF Spring Break Trip was such an amazing asset to my college experience. I met 32 extremely diverse people who very quickly became some of my best friends and have already taught me so many meaningful lessons about life.
We spent every morning doing different service projects in the towns we stopped at such as cutting down honeysuckle in a forest, helping local zoos and wildlife centers prepare for their seasons, and doing yard work in public parks. These projects were such a big part of what helped the people on my bus to really get to know each other and gave us the opportunity to make memories that we will cherish forever. Most of our inside jokes and fondest memories came from the service projects. For example, a few of us were assigned to sweep out and clean a moat in “Monkey Island” at a zoo in Pueblo. While the rest of us were cleaning, some of the guys from our bus jumped over the fence, snuck into the island, and scared all of us in the moat by pretending to be monkeys!
Each evening we would do an activity with the entire bus designed to help us get to know each other better, become closer as a group, and help us grow individually. My favorite activity was the night that we all sat in a circle and spent several hours sharing our personal stories and hardships with the group. It was very difficult to open up to a group of strangers, but doing so truly made us realize how connected we are. It was amazing to see how we all ended up on this trip with each other, no matter what our upbringing was. After talking about our hardships, we went back around and said something that we are proud of with ourselves. After this experience, we all discussed how we will be there for each other, no matter what. Since that night, my group has already made those words a reality.
It is amazing what a group of motivated college students can do, and I am completely in awe of the passion, determination, and resilience of everyone I met on this trip. I am so grateful to have made the choice to take this journey and cannot believe see how it has expanded beyond just a week long spring break trip.
For more information on STLF Spring Break Tours, please visit stlf.net.