It was winter break at the University of Florida and only a few days before Christmas – a great time for students to sleep in, stay warm and visit with family.
But 12 civically engaged UF students decided to spend the first days of their break from classes in Nashville, stuffing envelopes and organizing the library of One-In-Teen (OIT) Youth Services.
The students piled into two minivans and embarked on a nine-hour drive to Nashville on Friday, Dec. 19, not to hit the honkey-tonks but volunteer their time as part of UF’s Florida Alternative Breaks (FAB) program.
The FAB program, a part of the university’s Center for Leadership and Diversity, allows students to get away from the classroom, bring back a fresh perspective and help others along the way. To participate in FAB’s five-day adventure, students must submit an application and pay a flat rate.
DeWayne Fulton, president of OIT, said the students helped put together informational packets about OIT that will be sent to hundreds of school principals and guidance counselors, therapists and pediatricians throughout Middle Tennessee.
"Its been a couple of years since we’ve been able to do the mass mailing because it’s so staff intensive," Fulton said. "Its been a great benefit for us to have their help."
Fulton expects the marketing campaign to help boost attendance at the youth group’s weekly Wednesday meetings which have averaged about 15 people in past weeks. OIT provides a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth, between the ages of 14 and 21, to be themselves, according to the group’s Web site.
While in Nashville, the UF students participated in open discussions with OIT members about sexuality and gender identity, toured the city and visited Play Dance Bar on Sunday night. It was a first trip to a gay bar for many of the students, 10 of whom are straight.
Aisha Umar, a senior at UF, said she expected Nashville to be homogeneous and wasn’t sure that Music City would offer many lessons in diversity. The day before heading back to Florida, Umar said she was glad to be proven wrong.
Earlier this week, Umar was moved by a firsthand account from a trans OIT member.
"I have a transgender friend, but we never went into that discussion because we were buddies," Umar said. "(The OIT discussion) was eye opening."
Umar said her time in Nashville has inspired her to become more active on campus and in the Gainesville community when she returns to school.
"The activism that occurs within the community is more extensive than people may perceive it," Umar said. "More time and effort and paper work goes into it. But more people should be involved and informed. We should have a united front especially on transgender issues."
Other students, such as Nikole Duvalle, a graduate student studying to become a counselor, said the experience with OIT may help her in her future career.
Duvalle said there were many openly gay students in her Miami highschool, but none of her close friends were gay.
"When you’re a teen you think everyone’s just trying to get attention, but its interesting to see it from a different aspect later on," Duvalle said. "Being able to transfer this experience back to daily life is very valuable."