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Finding the Volunteer Experience She Thought She Missed

When Sarah Carmichael signed up for a VOLbreaks trip to serve in Memphis, Tennessee, she had no idea that the other students she would meet and the conversations she would have would change the course of her Volunteer experience.

VOLbreaks participants

Sarah Carmichael, second from left back row, and Gracie Linsley-Huff, first from left first row, pictured with other VOLbreaks participants at a local food pantry in Memphis, Tennessee.

VOLbreaks is a program operated by the Jones Center for Leadership and Service at UT that allows students to choose a service trip for Spring Break. In 2023, fifteen UT students participated in one of two VOLbreaks trips to Memphis, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina.

During the VOLbreaks trip, Carmichael and other trip participants spent time reading books to pre-schoolers, beautifying outdoor spaces, and supporting merchandise efforts at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Trip participants also had the opportunity to experience different leadership and management styles at their various service locations. While helping people in the community and learning about community development was the trip’s main goal, the cultivation of leadership skills and the Volunteer spirit within trip participants is also a focus for VOLbreaks.

Carmichael planned to graduate in May 2023, just three years after enrolling full time at UT, and worked three regular jobs throughout her undergraduate career. The stress of a heavy academic load on top of working multiple jobs was taking its toll, and VOLbreaks learning partner Gracie Linsley-Huff noticed this during the trip.

As a learning partner, Linsley-Huff’s role during the trip was to serve in an advisory capacity. After a full week of interaction with the student participants, Linsley-Huff and Carmichael entered into a deep conversation on the van ride home to Knoxville. Then, Linsley-Huff made a keen observation.

“Once students know you care about them, they’re more open to sharing with you about their life and struggles,” says Linsley-Huff. “And as Sarah talked about her college experience, I noticed an air of regret–she felt like she had missed out. It was clear that her social and emotional well-being had suffered in her pursuit of finishing a four-year degree in three years.”

For Linsley-Huff, well-being means values and boundaries. Values define who someone is and what they believe in, and boundaries are the limits they need in place so they can be true to those values.

Carmichael’s academic advisor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences adds that, “I asked Sarah to consider her personal values and weigh whether delaying graduation by one semester would make or break any future career goals. Or whether one more semester at UT might give her the space she needed to reflect and care for herself. And it might also create some closure to her four-year experience.”

“Throughout college I spent so much time working that I really didn’t have much time to spend around my peers,” says Carmichael.

I never felt connected to campus. The VOLbreaks trip was the beginning of the college experience I didn’t think I was ever going to have. I made new friends. People were the catalyst that helped me change directions in a really positive way. – Sarah Carmichael

After some reflection and critical feedback, Carmichael made the decision to stay at UT for another academic year. This decision created several logistical puzzles, including adding a minor and addressing the financial impact of her decision. But Carmichael says that taking the time to slow down and care for herself has eliminated the biggest stressors in her life.

“It would have helped me financially to finish in three years, but I have to slow down and take care of myself. Now that I’m only working two jobs and I know I’ll have next year to really enjoy college, I’m so much less stressed. I’m also leaving behind the part of me that wants to make ‘work’ a part of my identity,” adds Carmichael.

Carmichael has also accepted an offer to be a member of the VOLbreaks team, and she will lead a VOLbreaks trip in Fall 2023.

VOLbreaks participants pictured in orange visibility vests at a service project

Sarah Carmichael, third from right, pictured with other VOLbreaks participants at a community partner organization in Memphis, Tennessee.

At UT, creating opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to cultivate wellness is a critical touchstone in operations and programming.

“As a health-promoting university, we want our entire community to be invested in one another’s well-being, and this instance of a VOLbreaks advisor using a simple conversation to encourage a student in such a meaningful way is the perfect example of what that looks like on a personal level,” says Jill Zambito, assistant vice chancellor for health and wellbeing in the Division of Student Life at UT.

Resources through the Center for Care and Resilience are available for students in distress or for situations where mandatory reporting responsibilities are in place, but sometimes a student may just need someone to show that they care for them and to provide some help and support in a more informal way.

“There are many facets to well-being, and sometimes having the courage to care simply means sitting with students as they figure things out for themselves,” says Linsley-Huff. 

For Carmichael, a simple, caring conversation led to significant changes and an increase in her well-being. Rocky Top will be home sweet home for her for one more year, and then she will continue in her career plans from a healthier place.