Jamie Rose Montagne ’22
Last semester over fall break, I took an Alternative Break trip to Turtle Island Preserve, a primitive living site of 1000 acres in Boone, North Carolina that boasts of self-sufficiency, a man on a mission to preserve an ancient lifestyle, and a trove of lessons. The trip incited a re-evaluation of what service means to me and it is something I have continued to grapple with at Davidson.
For a bit of context, Alternative Breaks partners with non-profit organizations to offer trips that engage students in direct service, particularly trips that are focused on environmental and social issues.
However, the trip that our group of six took made each of us evaluate the intentionality behind the work we were doing and our different definitions of volunteering. For me, I consider meaningful service work to be something that is for the good of others, the environment, and for communities. It’s important to recognize that the mark of productive, beneficial service doesn’t necessarily result in tangible, grandiose effects. As Davidson students—many of whom volunteer through programs like Bonner Scholars, eating houses and fraternities, church-organized trips, or Alternative Breaks—we should grapple with evaluating our own service and what it means to us. When we do this as students, we can better ensure that our time is spent productively and is resulting in something bigger than ourselves.
When I describe my fall break, all I can think to say is that it was utterly strange, and it was a learning experience.
As one of the trip leaders, I had a particular outline in my head about how our group’s days would be spent and what kind of difference we’d be making on a property that I’m certain inspired John Keats’s poem, “To Autumn.”
Although, after spending a couple of mornings clearing debris and transplanting hand-sized rocks from the open fields to nearby oak trees, many of us questioned what we were doing.
At another point, Eustace Conway, the owner of the preserve, gathered all of us in a circle to share his opinions about the Illuminati, the downfall of America in ’83, and George W. Bush’s “reign of error.”
Part of our first afternoon was spent unloading a broken dryer and washer onto a plot of land that had at least one hundred old cars hidden behind trees and under bushes, a scene that almost jumped out of a Stephen King novel.
Conway would start his chainsaw by wildly flinging it around, giving him enough time to assign each of us an odd job. Granted, while a good bit of our time was spent doing these odd jobs, other parts were spent helping with an ongoing firewood operation.
Looking back now, I can see how some of our work was helpful and meaningful to Turtle Island. If our group had not cleared the forests and fields, someone else would have had to do it.
Unfortunately, what I think was missing from the operation was clear communication about the why of our volunteer work. How was our service bettering Turtle Island? How was it helping their educational mission and giving time and energy to environmental issues? As Conway informed us, he was the brain, and we were the hands, but he missed an integral feature of that analogy: both have to be connected in order to work. The entire trip catalyzed a great deal of introspection and has left me with a lot of questions and suggestions for how Alternative Breaks can improve and how we define meaningful service.
Volunteering and active citizenship are cornerstones of Davidson College’s identity. Davidson expects a level of awareness and responsibility from students who volunteer. Although, as I have spent more time on this campus, I am not so sure that service plays as big of a role in every student’s life as some may be led to believe. As members of organizations that promote philanthropy, it is paramount that we encourage each other to be active in our service work. Additionally, sustained service opportunities where students are consistent with their involvement lead to tremendous outcomes, and in my opinion, to better service.
I often think that the benefits, joy, and hard work that are entwined in these types of experiences are often left out of the dialogue students have about community service. Volunteering provides a hands-on opportunity to engage with issues around us, even the ones masked behind the railroad tracks like gentrification, socio-economic struggles, etc.
My experience over fall break engendered a time of personal reflection in combination with an assessment of service on Davidson’s campus. I still grapple now with my role in volunteer work and how I can do better. I’m excited to contribute to these conversations, and I would urge every student on this campus to recognize their role in giving back and making meaningful contributions in the community and even beyond Davidson.
Jamie Rose Montagne ’22 is a political science major from Spartanburg, South Carolina. Contact her at