What the STLF?

Students learn leadership and friendship through STLF.

Sumaya Aden (first-year) hammering nails into the siding of the Habitat for Humanity house in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Jasmine Lee, Senior Photographer

For the past two years now, I’ve gone with Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF) for spring break. It’s a half-volunteering, half-tourism alternative spring break trip on a coach bus, 100% planned and led by a core group of students. This year our destination was Charleston, South Carolina.

Typically I wouldn’t be thrilled at the prospect of waking up at 6:00 a.m. the Friday before spring break and driving four hours to UW Madison, but under STLF circumstances I couldn’t even sleep the night before, I was so excited.

STLF is a national organization with its headquarters in Minneapolis that organizes hundreds of these “Pay it Forward” tours, each winding their way through five cities and five service sites and ending in a tourist attraction Destination City. Last year ours was Atlanta, Georgia; years past have included Salt Lake City, Utah and Denver, Colorado.

Many midwestern colleges and universities have their own chapters which send out a bus or three for break, but this year Hamline didn’t sign up enough participants to fill a coach bus. Instead we drove to UW Madison to join one of their buses on its way to Charleston.

The scariest part is the first day on the coach bus; you’re thrown on with 49 other people you’ve likely never met but will spend nine days on a cramped bus with and will inevitably become very close to and head out to the first city. At first we all eyed each other nervously. Who are these strange Wisconsinites? What even is the “Badger Nation”? A few light ice-breaking games ensued to get people comfortable around each other.

We stopped for lunch and Shamrock Shakes, and five hours later arrived in our first city: Toledo, Ohio. The bus was unpacked into a church basement gym. We set up our sleeping bags on the floor and did a round of name games, then passed out in anticipation of the service project in the morning.

The next day we piled out of the gym onto the bus, and into downtown Toledo to help serve lunch to the homeless population before getting back on the bus to the next city. This time it’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By this point we’re kind of familiar with others’ names and personalities and aren’t as awkward around the Madison folks. We’ve also decided to make a bus Finsta (“fake instagram”) account to keep a journal of our shenanigans, and people are already coming up with captions for weird selfies and awkward pictures sent to the group chat.

As soon as we entered the outskirts of Pittsburgh, someone announced that the Badgers had won in the first round of March Madness and an impromptu dance party occurred. To us Hamline folks that was a bit weird, but we joined in anyway—dancing is fun and after sitting for four hours it’s a welcome change of pace.

The bus parked in Pittsburgh for dinner. We wandered the city and snapped a few pics for Instagram, and unpacked at our second housing site, this time the Pittsburgh Boys and Girls club. The night unfolded much like the first, but this time we had a more serious activity, after a wildly competitive and somewhat violent game of Pool Lightning.

STLF aims to create leaders out of participants, so the break is not spent just touring new cities and serving communities. Each evening is dedicated to developing participants into confident human beings and bonding with others in the tour group. This manifests itself as an Intent vs. Impact discussion in Pittsburg. In the morning, we had another service project, did a wee bit of tourism, and then it’s off to the next city!

The next three days proceeded much like the first two: arrive in a city, unpack at the housing site, hang out and bond with the rest of the bus, evening activities, crash from exhaustion, wake up in the morning to serve the community and on to the next city.

All the while we were creating endless inside jokes with our bus, getting to know people from our school better than we ever could otherwise and having the time of our life not doing homework. We made our windy way south through Harrisonburg, Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina, finally ending our tour in Charleston, South Carolina.

After five days of curling up in weird corners, hotel beds were the most luxurious place we had ever slept in our lives and unlimited hot showers were a gift that surpassed anything I’ve ever gotten for Christmas and my birthday combined. Four other buses from Madison arrived in Charleston as well, so the night was spent meeting other people, wandering to Applebee’s for shakes and half-priced apps and playing Egyptian Ratscrew until two in the morning.

Our service project the next day was on a beach hucking around bags of oyster shells. It was a balmy 56 degrees and most of us got sunburns on our noses. We spent the afternoon touring downtown Charleston (the highlight of my week was petting 22 dogs and face planting in the process), the evening dressing up for celebration and the night in each other’s hotel rooms talking about anything that came to mind, fully aware that the trip was nearing the end and that we’d be saying goodbye to UW Madison in just 48 hours.

The hardest part of tour is getting off the bus on Saturday and hugging all of your new friends. It’s always bittersweet. We complained that they live four hours away, and knowing that we wouldn’t see them on campus Monday morning led to more than a few tears.

The post-STLF feeling of emptiness in your bed alone is a real problem, but I wouldn’t trade a second of the week of making friends, opening up to people and learning that I actually can be an incredible leader for anything in the world.