“Vacancy is Where Great Things Happen”


Shawn is an Academic Support Instructor at Cushing Academy, in Massachusetts, and an alumnus of Community Works Institute (CWI).

I work (and live) at a boarding prep school in Massachusetts. Over the first two years that I worked there and taught the Community Service course, it has become apparent that because many of our students are not members of the local community, it’s hard for them (and us as a school) to establish a sense of place outside of campus. My work has involved bringing the learning piece to the service.

This also impacts the sustainability of our program. For many years the program has been a course that no one really “owned”. We don’t have a dedicated Service-Learning position, which leaves much of the outreach to whoever is teaching the course each semester. I’m lucky that I have experience with service-learning and establishing relationships with community resources. I was able to create a relationship with the local elementary school’s after school program twice a week. We just finished up our second year there, but there isn’t a consistent leader, which has created problems on site. So I was intent on finding a teaching strategy, philosophy, and/or methodology that I can implement at Cushing Academy. And, I found it!

The week long Community Works Institute in Burlington Vermont this past summer was an amazing experience. I remember walking in the first day and wondering if I was in the right place. In my head, I pictured a conference-type setting. At first I was a bit nervous that, with the perfectly sized group, I was going to be much more “on the spot”. In the end, that was true, but it was one of the best parts of this experience! The deep connection between members of the whole group was so very impressive.

One of the best aspects of the Institute was our breakout study groups. Being able to dive deeper into conversation and topics that pertained to our own individual situations was helpful and insightful. I loved having so much time in our groups. I thought maybe it would be too long, but it just felt like we could relax and really focus on our discussions. This model is something I’m hoping to implement moving forward at my school.

What changed most for me during the Institute was the way in which I see Service-Learning differently than Community Service — in meaning and impact to the community, and to those who are serving. Seeing Community Service more as charity than partnership really opened my eyes. Reciprocity! I think in my current position I’ve been trying to make Community Service more Service-Learning-like, instead of pursuing a straight Service-Learning model. Looking for real and deeper partnerships instead of pushing our agenda on those we perceive to be less fortunate.

I also gained a lot from our group sharings and presentations. Not only were these fun, but they deepened our connection to each other and helped me to see through others eyes — what they were getting from the Institute. This helped me look at other perspectives in terms of concepts and information and not just my own.

I think maybe my biggest takeaway was the concept of Sustainability. I had a base knowledge of what Sustainability was but seeing how it pertains to Service-Learning really made sense to me. Almost all of what has happened at my school in our community service elective was not done with an eye towards sustainability. It was a one and done type scenario. For me, what I want to bring back with me to Cushing Academy is how to create a Service-Learning program that addresses sustainability, and is itself sustainable. It also made me think big picture about my school as a whole and how that too can be more sustainable moving forward.

The thing that I was most affected by was the presentation by Dan Higgins, professor and anthropologist who has chronicled his hometown of Winooski, Vermont for over forty years. He was talking about the concept of vacancy. His definition resonated with me: “Vacancy is where great things happen”. Where there is space, it’s waiting to be filled with greatness. It’s open to so many possibilities. As an artist, educator, and therapist, this is so relevant. It’s a concept that I will use in my personal, creative life, as well as professionally.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at CWI’s Summer Institute. As I mentioned earlier, having the Institute’s director Joe Brooks guide us, with the time and space to digest the information made all the difference. Sitting on a rock in the cove behind our meeting space was where I spent most of my free time during the week. It played a large role in my connection to others and the content of what was presented. Best of all, I definitely feel that I can reach out to any of my classmates and Joe at any time. That’s a great feeling to have!

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Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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