High Impact Learner: Social Justice and Service

Alexandra Petkova ’14 engages with communities in Bulgaria, Gettysburg, and New Orleans.

Alexandra Petkova ’14 returned to campus from her first winter break a day early, walked up the stairs of Plank Gym, entered the Center for Public Service office for the first time, and waited nervously on a couch in the lobby for her interview to become a Heston Summer intern.

“I was a little scared just because I didn’t know anyone,” Petkova said, reflecting in that same spot in the CPS office three years later, when she seems to have done everything.

Petkova applied for that summer experience because she had seen the CPS website, and the College’s vision for active engagement in the community connected with the service work she did at an orphanage back home.

Petkova grew up in Ruse, Bulgaria, a dynamic city along the Danube River, where her loving parents, grandparents and cousins surrounded her. Her mom always pushed her into education and learning and is most responsible for developing her passion for social justice.

It turned out, Petkova had nothing to fear before that interview in 2011. She was selected to be a Heston summer intern. But that did mean spending a full summer in Gettysburg, 5,000 miles away from Ruse, where she wouldn’t return until the following winter break.

“Of course, it was hard to not see my family for a year,” Petkova said.

But it was a great opportunity.

“We don’t have that many Heston interns that are First-Year students,” said Kim Davidson, the director of the Center for Public Service, “but she was so strong.”

During her internship, Petkova had two roles: working at the Migrant Education Technology Center for Adults and Families (METCAF), and IMPRINT, an after school program at the Gettysburg Middle School.

In both cases, Petkova immersed herself into the Adams County community, and helped to alleviate the stress of living in a foreign country, with education.

“For a long time, people have thought only about service, going out into the community and doing good work. But really it’s so much more than that,” Davidson said. And education is an integral part of CPS’ push for change.

The Center for Public Service has six major program areas, and one of them is dialogue. The Heston internship gave Petkova opportunities to tutor migrant Mexican families. A big challenge Petkova faced was that those in the migrant community struggled learning the English language.

“The hard part was that I didn’t speak any Spanish,” Petkova said. “A couple of times I felt almost powerless, because I couldn’t explain a word. That was hard. But the good part was that you use body language or point to things. You teach yourself how to communicate.”

Overcoming the barrier, she was able to connect with the old—women who reminded Petkova of her grandmother, trying to cook and care for her, and the young—whose rapid growth and acquisition of the language fascinated her.

“It was just so moving, they would try so hard. And just thinking about how many people around the world have no access to education is really sad,” Petkova said. “I believe that we should all have an opportunity to succeed.”

The Heston internship was a transformative experience. In her subsequent summers, Petkova was a Mellon Summer Scholar, studying the experience of American Muslim teenagers after 9/11, and a leader on a service trip to New Orleans.

Throughout her work with CPS, she has learned a lot. Before she arrived for first-year orientation, Petkova thought because America was a rich country, everything would be perfect in Pennsylvania. She didn’t expect some of the domestic problems that she has spent time fighting against, such as: migrant issues, economic inequality and poverty, and homelessness.

“I think I have become more aware of what people are, what people need, what issues people face,” Petkova said.

Petkova is currently applying to graduate schools across the United States. She wants to go into clinical psychology and work with families similar to those that CPS connected her with. Petkova is also considering extending her educational role as a teacher for a couple of years.

Where Petkova goes next is uncertain. But it is clear: she is almost sad to say she’s a senior, yet, she feels that Gettysburg has prepared her well to continue with her endeavors on a broader scale.

“I knew it was a great school, but I was surprised about how engaged the education I’m getting is and how supportive people are. Gettysburg College is a great place,” Petkova said.

Learn more about ways to get involved with the Center of Public Service, including Big Brother Big Sisters, Campus Kitchen, discussion groups, and immersion projects. “There are 20 different opportunities on any given week,” Davidson said. “Take advantage of one of them. Find one that you are interested in. Volunteer. Get yourself out into the community. Meet people out there. Make friends out there.” According to Davidson, on any given week, 25 to 30 percent of the student body is involved with CPS, and 70 percent have done something in the last year.

Read about other high impact learners at Gettysburg College: Molly Reynolds ‘14, art; Julia Freed ‘16, leadership through active pursuits; Helena Yang '14, student/faculty research; and four students working with the College's distinctive programs.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Nikki Rhoads, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803
Peter Barrett, communications and marketing intern

Posted: Mon, 21 Oct 2013

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