In August, a dozen Tommies worked on a picturesque farm near Taylor’s Falls. Their task was to build a fence, which, when completed, would allow the resident goats to roam the pasture. On the surface, the work could have been any number of service projects St. Thomas students complete throughout the year.
But in addition to helping out, these Tommies also were training for their 2016-17 VISION trips.
Since 1987, thousands of St. Thomas students have traveled during J-Term and spring break to serve communities in the U.S. and abroad through the VISION program. Participants go everywhere from Guatemala and Thailand to California and northern Minnesota, and each site is connected to a particular issue, such as immigration, sustainability or poverty. While there, students live, work and walk alongside residents, learning about others’ lives and sharing their own.
Before their trips, undergraduate student leaders of each team take a “practice trip” to prepare and cultivate their leadership skills. In the last three years, the farm in Taylor’s Falls, owned by Jacob Kulju ’04 and Kerstin Hansen ’04 – both VISION program alumni – has been the space for that practice trip. For three days, the students sleep in tents, cook outside and help with projects, such as the fence, or clearing weeds and chopping wood.
Kulju said he likes the setup because they’re mutually beneficial: He and Hansen needed the help and the leaders needed a space to go.
“We all do better when we all do better,” he said, quoting former Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The mini trip also puts into practice the six components at the core of the VISION experience: service, simplicity, spirituality, community, cultural exchange and justice issues. These components are what set the program apart from a typical service trip, according to Jacob Cunningham, director of the Office for Service and Social Justice and VISION program director for the last 15 years.
“Any student who goes on a trip comes back knowing the components,” Cunningham said. “[The components] are a living vision of what the program is about – kind of the lens in which our participants view their experience.”
Just as they would on an actual VISION trip, students take time each day for reflection. A yurt on the property, built by Cunningham, serves as a space for students to share their thoughts.
“I want them to experiment with it on these practice trips so when they’re in Guatemala or Thailand or Ghana, they can use it to help bring the components to life,” Cunningham said. “That’s why you’re a leader in the program: to bring this type of experience to wherever you are.”
The deep connections the VISION program and the farm help cultivate are already evident. Program alum Meredith Heneghan ’16 said her first practice trip to the farm in 2014 was “one of the best weeks of my life.”
“We just came and immersed ourselves in this land and in their mission. I was really heartbroken to leave,” Heneghan said. “When I came back the next year I really felt at home and happy to share this place with the other leaders who hadn’t yet been here.”
On the last day of the 2015 practice trip, Heneghan joked with Kulju that despite graduating she would be back the following summer. “He said, ‘Do you want to move out here and be our farmhand?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’”
After graduating in May, Heneghan did indeed move into an Airstream trailer on the property. Having led trips as a student herself, she played a central role in this year’s practice trip. “I was really excited to graduate and be done with school, but VISION will always be really important to me,” Heneghan said. “I’m very happy to be part of their week here at the farm.”
Seniors Nikki Leland and Natalie Thoresen, the student co-directors, were among the students on the farm this year. Leland said she liked how the program and practice trip provided a strong bond between those who have gone on past VISION trips and those on the teams now. She said it allows her to pass along what she gained from her predecessors.
“The leaders are really doing everything on the trips to make it VISION and bring the six components,” she said. “I think to be able to recreate that for other people, it’s almost like paying it forward. My leaders did that for me, so I’m going to do it for someone else.”
“VISION shaped my college experience,” Thoresen added. “Wherever life takes us it will be something we look back on. Service and simplicity and those components will stick with me.”
Cunningham has another way of summarizing how students come out of the program with such strong connections and a dedication to living out the values they learned throughout the program: “You really become part of the VISION family.”