Students experience community engagement, service learning during faculty-led trip to New Zealand

Western Carolina University students participating in a recent combination service-learning and faculty-led trip to New Zealand were introduced to a simple but extraordinary public safety concept and witnessed transformative changes happening in a region damaged by earthquakes.

Led by WCU faculty members Cyndy Caravelis and Albert Kopak, both associate professors of criminology and criminal justice, the visit took place Jan. 7-20. During their stay, faculty and students saw how involvement in a community garden could reduce crime, build unity and was proving to be a successful public safety concept in action. All 14 students paid their own way for the nearly 8,300-mile, 18-hour flight.

Community members and WCU students work tending the Riccarton Community Garden. (Photo courtesy of Katie Goodman)

“This trip really related to our studies because in criminal justice, everything starts with the community,” said Katie Goodman, a senior majoring in criminal justice. “For example, while in Christchurch (New Zealand’s third most populous city) we visited a neighborhood that used to have a really high crime rate. Because a police officer there took an initiative to start a community garden and get those who lived there involved, crime rates dropped.”

Kopak described the garden being at the entrance to the neighborhood, with routine traffic and high visibility. “So, there’s a sense of pride in it,” he said. “There’s accompanying artwork and shared responsibility in maintaining it, and reaping the harvest.”

In addition to asking questions and witnessing the project firsthand, WCU students got down and dirty during their visits to the garden, by relocating fences, planting vegetables and shifting compost.

“The physical work that they did at the garden has made a massive difference, getting a lot done in a short space of time,” said Steve Jones-Poole of the Neighborhood Police Team in Christchurch. “The recognition and support that they gave to the Riccarton Community Garden gives a moral boost to the community garden members. This empowers them to continue with the work they are doing that helps many residents with food parcels and builds community connections and capacity. A community that has cohesion and ownership will have less crime, less social issues, less health and social services support requirements, and be more resilient when it comes to coping with and recovering from emergencies.”

Lane Perry, director of WCU’s Center for Service Learning, has personal connections with the community ― the University of Canterbury in Christchurch is his alma mater and the trip liaison was his doctorate supervisor ― and although he helped with trip planning, stayed stateside. “The garden was developed in response to a silver-lining opportunity associated with some vacant space that came open after the February 2011 earthquake and aftershocks that resulted in a devastation of roughly 60 percent of this city of nearly 400,000 people and the deaths of 185 people,” he said. “The garden now grows food for the local community. Serendipitously, the WCU participation was during the MLK Day of Service.”

The scenic wonder of New Zealand remains, although the city of Christchurch is still recovering from an earthquake. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Poore)

Sarah Poore, a senior majoring in criminal justice, described the trip as being personally transformative. “The biggest thing that I took away from this course and going through Christchurch is that even amongst turmoil, destruction and chaos, there is hope,” she said. “A hope for a better life and future. A hope that times will get better. You just have to go through the fire first, but, even as cliched as it sounds, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. My perspective on life in general has really changed, because there is so much that we take for granted. And it saddens me that it takes something drastic like an earthquake to bring the community together. So, now we just need to try to start doing things that bring people together prior to disasters.”

Katie Riley, a senior double majoring in criminal justice and Spanish, contrasted the beauty of exploring New Zealand’s South Island before the group was taken to Christchurch to learn about the 2011 earthquake and the local efforts to restore the city. “It was encouraging to hear and see how the people of Christchurch grew from the trauma and the destruction to improve their community with physical innovations like communal urban gardens and with inventive programs like restorative justice groups,” she said.

“The multitude of unique ideas each helped to fill a gap within the city and make it better than before. They relied on human fortitude and fellowship to rebuild their community rather than the brick and mortar that had suddenly become all too temporary and unstable,” Riley said. “Everyone has a different story to share, a different way that they cherish life and persevere through their struggles, and my time in New Zealand certainly made that unmistakably clear.”

Making the trip in addition to Goodman, Poore and Riley were students Driver Blythe, Daphne Bradshaw, Brianne Budzinski, Morgan Forbes Robinson, Samantha Gibson, Lillian Richardson, Hugo Sanchez, Jeremy Sasser, Shawn Schneider, Olivia Webster and Valerie Wilson.

To learn more about service learning involvement and activities, contact Perry at or 828-227-2643.