Category: Social Action

Bike and Build: Pedaling for Affordable Housing


Name: Kaitlyn Cohen

Year: Class of 2014

Major: Neuroscience

Hometown: Toms River, NJ

Bike and Build: Pedaling for Affordable Housing

Throughout my past four years at Hopkins, one of the questions I get asked the most is “How do you like Baltimore?” Every time, I answer the same way – I love it. For some people, this comes as a big surprise. Baltimore doesn’t always have the best reputation, but all of my experiences in the city have shown me the very lovable side of Charm City.

One of the most impactful experiences that have helped me love Baltimore has been volunteering with Sandtown Habitat for Humanity. I started working with Habitat while in high school, and fell in love with the organization. Baltimore has a lot of vacant row homes, and Sandtown Habitat works to convert these vacants into livable homes for families. There is something so satisfying about spending a day building, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s such a great cause!

Myself and two other volunteers on a build trip.

Myself and two other volunteers on a build trip.

Having access to affordable housing is something so important for living a happy, healthy life, and unfortunately it can be very difficult to come by. Groups like Habitat for Humanity and other affordable housing initiatives help bridge the gap by providing homes at cost to the proud new homeowners.  Working on the construction aspect is always a lot of fun, but some of my favorite Habitat memories involve meeting the homeowners, hearing their stories, and then handing over the keys at the house dedication.

I was a leader on the 2012 Habitat Spring Break trip. We framed the entire house in one week! Here we are with the homeowners and other volunteers.

I was a leader on the 2012 Habitat Spring Break trip. We framed the entire house in one week! Here we are with the homeowners and other volunteers.

I love working with Habitat and believe in the need for affordable housing so much that I’ve decided to dedicate my summer advocating for affordable housing in the US. Not only do I get to raise money for groups like Habitat and spend days building, but I’ll actually be riding my bicycle from Providence, RI to Half Moon Bay, CA all for this great cause. I am one of 32 riders on Bike and Build’s Providence to CA route this summer, and I couldn’t be more excited.

My Bike and Build route – all the way from Providence, RI to Half Moon Bay, CA!

My Bike and Build route – all the way from Providence, RI to Half Moon Bay, CA!

Bike and Build is a non-profit that sends riders on 8 different trips across the country. Each rider has to raise $4,500 to participate, and most of that money goes straight to affordable housing groups. My trip has 15 build days; which I’m sure will be one of the highlights of the trip. I’m not an accomplished cyclist by any means, but I’m up for the challenge. Working with groups like Sandtown Habitat has really shown me how impactful every dollar donated and hour volunteered can be. I can’t think of a better way to spend my summer!

Fundraising at the farmer’s market for my trip – check out my rider page at

Fundraising at the farmer’s market for my trip – check out my rider page at

If you want more information on JHU Habitat, like our Facebook page!

Strangers No More


Name: Wei-Shi Lin
Year: Class of 2016
Majors: Writing Seminars and English
Hometown: Taipei, Taiwan
Strangers No More

College is an intricate world of exploration and goals and passions and interests and confusion and interactions with a million different people who have the potential to completely change you even though they might be only a fleeting presence in your life. And with college, as with many things in life, you kind of have to dive in head first, open-minded, learning to trust the hands and the hearts of the people – those special select few – who will want to get to know your favorite color and the way you drink your coffee black – two sugars, and who will notice that face you make when you get defensive, and who will love the way you look at the world.

My Big, Connor, and I at the Somo concert, The Ride Tour.

My Big, Connor, and I at the Somo concert, The Ride Tour.

The start of my adventure, once I was brave enough to take the leap into the scary depths of university life, brought me – encouraged by the wonderful person who became my Big – into the loving circle of Alpha Phi Omega and the brothers – read: siblings – that have become such a significant part of my life. Quick to welcome new faces and eager to speak of their passion for service and their friendships in the brotherhood, APO, our co-ed service fraternity, intrigued me. And this is where I found a niche. These are the people who drop everything to be there for each other, who protect and love so unconditionally. Within APO, we quickly learn of and cherish the talents of our brothers, proudly speaking to others of brothers who play sports, do photography, make films, act, dance, cook, lead, and otherwise flourish in so many ways. We’re able to so easily become a part of each other’s lives and my brothers are the ones I turn to first. One of the things I love most about APO, however, is that it’s never only about the bonds formed within the APO family, but also about reaching out to the community and getting to know the kids, the women, and the families that we help in our service.


Brother Allen Zhang as a clown for the kids at Carnival.

Brother Allen Zhang as a clown for the kids at Carnival.

I suppose the writer in me has always been fascinated by people, caught up in the fact that this person has a scar below the ear and that person bites her fingernails, obsessed with the stories of the strangers I see, wondering what ‘happy’ feels like for them, and whom they love. People are unbelievably interesting. Within APO, we become characters in each other’s stories as friendships evolve through rush, and pledge, and brotherhood. But even beyond that, with APO service projects, I’m introduced to so many different people with so many different lives. And these stories begin to matter as well. I met a mother last spring who brought her children to our carnival every year. She had wanted to be a teacher, and had even started getting her degree. But the kids are more important, she says, and she had to stop her education to care for her daughters. “It’s worth it,” she told me while handing a lollipop to her younger daughter. “I’d give up anything for these two, any day.” Or meet Trinity, age ten, and her seven-year-old sister Ariel, boisterous and huggable, who run to greet us every Monday at the Homework Club. This Thanksgiving, they wrote down that they were grateful to have food, grateful that mom loves them, and grateful for us, the tutors.

And captivated by the stories from mothers with weary eyes but soldier hearts who know that their love for their children is all they need, or appreciated by kids we help through struggles and with whom we celebrate successes, the brothers become so passionately involved in our community. For me, Alpha Phi Omega has always been about both the heart-warming dynamics of the fraternity and the service that we do. It’s the love and support for each other and the need to care for as many people as possible in the community at large that make us Alpha Phi Omega and hold us together. And through all the stories yet to be shared, it’s nice to know I always have my bros.

My pledge class – Alpha Zeta – shares a group hug

My pledge class – Alpha Zeta – shares a group hug

RELAY the Message


Name: Alexa Mechanic
Year: 2014
Hometown: Amawalk, New York
Majors/Minor: Writing Seminars & English majors, Psychology minor

On hearing the group name “Relay For Life,” many people ask me how I can possibly run all night long, even for such a great cause. Well, if you’re one of those people who has evaded Relay For Life in the past out of a fear of having to run for twelve hours, you’re in luck. Relay For Life actually requires no athletic ability at all – it is an annual, all night event full of ceremonies, games, entertainment and food, and the purpose is to fundraise as much money as possible to support the American Cancer Society. Teams generally take turns sending one member to walk the track so that one person from every team is walking at all times. Relay For Life is, internationally, the American Cancer Society’s largest fundraiser. 100% of donations go to the ACS, where they are divided up into funds that help support Hope Lodges, provide rides to treatment centers for cancer patients, connect cancer patients with survivors who can relate to them, sponsor scholarships for cancer survivors, and, of course, contribute to the search for a cure.

Just a cool side note – Relay For Life stems from the efforts of one dedicated man, Dr. Gordy Klatt, who actually ran for 24 hours around a track in 1985 – for more than 83 miles – to raise money to fight cancer. Over 300 of his friends watched and donated as Klatt proved that, cliché as it is, impossible is nothing. He raised $27,000 in 24 hours. If one man can succeed at such a feat, imagine what we can do as an entire campus.

When I first arrived at Hopkins and attended the awesome and very overwhelming Student Activities Fair, I signed up for the Relay For Life e-mail list; my town at home never had a Relay, so I was excited to become a part of the group and apply to be marketing & publicity co-chair. So many people in my family and so many of my friends have lost people close to them to this horrible disease, and its prevalence in our society terrifies me – I wanted to join Relay to fight back. Fortunately, I became marketing & publicity co-chair, and I loved being on the executive board so much that I reapplied and still hold the position. Our event co-chairs and the executive board work extremely hard all year to create, plan, and fundraise for this event, and our goal is to get the entire campus and the Baltimore community to come out and support this amazing cause (while having fun and making a difference simultaneously).


Relay For Life at Hopkins takes place on the upper Quad (unless it rains, in which case we move to the indoor track at the Rec Center – equally as fun), and I can vouch that the entire night is beautiful in a million different ways. Despite the fact that I helped plan the event last year, I had no idea what to expect. After finishing set-up and successfully constructing a balloon arch, we watched as people started streaming in. The night was crisp, clear and a little bit windy, as we later learned in the Luminaria ceremony. Teams pitched their tents all around the quad, fundraising stations popped up everywhere (think tons of bake sales, inflatable jousting, video game stations, cotton candy, etc.), and the quad truly came to life with the community’s collective enthusiasm. The cancer survivors at the event start off the night with the kick-off lap; it is a remarkable sight to watch them walk together, reminding us why we Relay in the first place. This part of the night comprises the “celebrate” aspect of the “celebrate, remember, fight back” slogan as we seek to celebrate the lives of these strong, inspirational cancer survivors.

Next is the Luminaria ceremony, which is aesthetically beautiful – the quad is lined with paper Luminaria bags that each hold a burning candle, and we usually try to spell out “Hope” in Luminaria bags on the Gilman steps. These bags honor individual people touched by cancer, and the mere number of bags present at the event has a huge emotional impact on everyone in attendance. Last year, it was so windy that some of the bags lit on fire… it was almost disastrous, but we were luckily prepared with back-up electric candles! Luminaria is part of the “remember” ceremony – we remember the lives of those who lost their battles, but it is also motivation for the “fight back” ceremony for those in the midst of cancer. In the actual “fight back” ceremony, everyone makes a personal commitment to save lives by joining the fight against cancer.

Relay at JHU was a blast – my friends and I had a great time while supporting an outstanding cause. My favorite part of the night was when my friend Lindsay and I sprinted around the track at two or three in the morning due to the insane amount of sugar we consumed (how can you say no to a cupcake that will support the fight against cancer?). I stayed almost all night – my spring allergies were in full throttle so actually sleeping outside was not looking too promising – and I groggily returned to the quad very early on Saturday morning to help clean up. The most dedicated Relayers were welcoming the morning from their tents, and I took a moment to take in what I had been a part of the night before. It feels good to take a stand against cancer, and it feels even better when you see all of your hard work come together between the Gilman steps and our good friend Milton E. Eisenhower, culminating in this rare unification of the community with one goal in mind: stopping cancer in its tracks.

There is no doubt that Relay For Life at JHU will be even better this year. To top the crazy dance party that broke out in the middle of the night last year, Relay has invited some of the campus’ top entertainment groups to come and perform. Some groups include Adoremus, S.L.A.M., the Eclectics, Vivaz, JOSH, the Sirens, the Octopodes, the Vocal Chords, the Allnighters and JHEC. If that doesn’t convince you, what if I told you that Miss Maryland will be here to help out with the notorious Miss Relay Pageant? You do NOT want to miss this.

We are less than 15 days away from the event – we are looking to raise over $80,000, and we are only at a little over $27,000! Relay is Friday April 13th at 7 PM – Saturday April 14th at 7 AM – you don’t have to stay the whole time, but we hope that you come out and support Relay For Life and the American Cancer Society. You can sign up at by either joining an existing team or creating your own team. Check to see if your favorite student group has a team – if they don’t, start one! There is a $10 registration fee that goes directly to the American Cancer Society – it’s easy to find $10 floating around, and you can even skip out on coffee for a day or so to come up with the money! When it comes down to it, it’s one night, one fight – spending your Friday night on D-Level is not an excuse to skip out on this event. Cancer’s prevalence in our society is alarming, and there is no reason that Hopkins cannot surpass our past fundraising goals and become a top fundraising school.

One night, one fight. Relay the message, and I hope to see you there.

An Awesome Intersession Experience


Name: Claire Schwimmer

Hometown: Westport, CT

Year: Class of 2012

Majors: Computer Science and Economics


Following winter break most Hopkins students return to campus for Intersession, a three-week program in which students have the opportunity to take incredible classes, study abroad, intern, volunteer, and more! I chose to spend intersession in Honduras on a Global Brigades trip focused on microfinance.  Global Brigades is global organization that brings students to Panama, Ghana, and Honduras on different community service projects.  Microfinance is a diverse field but our trip focused on improving a rural Honduran bank and recruiting new members to the bank.

At 3:45 am the morning of January 15th, the nine of us met and exhausted, made our way to Honduras.  Once in Honduras we began our exploration at a national park with a view of the whole city. We then drove to “the compound”, which is where we would be staying for the next week.

The view from the national park

Our first day there we drove two hours through rivers, over rocks, and on the bumpiest roads imaginable to our community, “El Junco”.  Once there, we met with the executive board of the bank and questioned them endlessly until we understood how their bank operated.  El Junco has an agricultural economy, based mainly off of coffee so in the afternoon we learned how to make coffee, starting with planting the plants and ending with drinking the coffee.


Me with my coffee plant. The basket around my waist is for collecting coffee beans.


Driving through a river

We spent the next two days learning about different family’s financial situations by visiting their homes.  Since many families did not save any money, the majority of our time was spent figuring out ways for them to efficiently allocate their incomes.  The first family we visited had seven people (including a two week old adorable baby) living in a three-bedroom house.  Each member, including the children when they weren’t in school, had to walk an hour and a half each way to work on someone else’s land picking coffee.  They barely had enough money to get by and in the off season they had even less disposable income.  We realized that this family needed another source of income to provide for all of the children, so we helped the women open a business selling clothes, a skill they could now capitalize on.

After talking with the families and the members of the bank we made suggestions about how to improve the bank’s functionality and how the families can utilize the bank to improve their livelihood.

However, my trip to Honduras wasn’t all work. One of my favorite memories was visiting an orphanage and playing with the kids.  My Spanish isn’t great but I was still able to communicate and have fun.  There were hammocks all around the compound so when we weren’t in the community, I spent a majority of my time relaxing in the rural beauty of Honduras on a hammock.

One of the kids from the orphanage

My intersession trip to Honduras was amazing! It gave me a chance to see Honduras, learn about microfinance, and make great friends!

All the Small Things – Confessions of a Soon-to-be-Adult


Name: Saznin Mehta

Major: Public Health

Hometown: Alexandria, VA

Year: Class of 2012


Now that it’s March of my senior year, I’m beginning to realize how dangerously close I am to becoming A Real Person. You know, someone with a job and an apartment and bills and, gasp, responsibilities. Even though I’ve lived off-campus for two years and have more or less gotten the hang of taking care of myself (laundry is still a struggle), I’m about as close to reaching real adult-status maturity as your average toddler. I knew coming into my second semester that I needed a smooth transition to post-grad life, something that would give me a taste of the real world without requiring me to abandon my comfortable college bubble. With that in mind, I began applying to internships in DC and finally landed one at the UN Foundation.

This, I thought, would be the perfect segue to impending adulthood. I would commute to DC two days a week, work remotely from Baltimore on those days when I had class, and gain valuable experience at an amazing organization. I’ve had my share of internships before, but never during the school year, so I braced myself for a heavier-than-usual workload, which at Hopkins is no small feat. I went to the mall and bought myself a few blazers and slacks and some sensible shoes so I’d look the part. Now was my chance to prove that I could act it, too.

Here’s the part where any other blog would launch into ‘A Profound List of Things I’ve Learned,’ but I’ve decided to go in another direction. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of challenging learning experiences – meeting deadlines, handling a million projects at once, learning programs and procedures very quickly, rectifying mistakes gracefully – but I’ve also run across some subtle yet equally important lessons that have proven vital to getting me through the day, such as…

  • Don’t email people on Monday mornings before they’ve had their coffee. They’ll be in an exponentially better mood after 10 AM, and it’ll show in their responses.
  • Never stand on the left side of Metro station escalators unless you want to incur the wrath of a million angry commuters.
  • The best way to wake up at 5 AM and stay up: leave your alarm by the milk and cereal. Food always triumphs over sleep.
  • Write stuff down. If I don’t make a note of a task right when I get it, it might as well not exist.
  • Turn your phone off, not just during meetings, but also when you’re out with people. Little known fact: the world will not end if you don’t answer that text. And who wants to be friends with someone who’d rather hang out with their iPhone? That’s right: no one.
  • Smile at strangers. Sounds cheesy, but getting a big grin in response is enough to turn even the most horrible day around.

… and many more. Profound revelations these are not, but they’ve taught me to be perceptive, proactive, and productive. And if the last few weeks have taught me anything, it’s that the smallest things can make the biggest difference. The best part of my day is not when I’ve finished answering emails or completed a big project or dazzled my boss with my efficiency; it’s when I give myself a chance to improve my day through the little things. When I’m content with the most mundane aspects of my life, the more important things seem like a piece of cake to handle. So will my ever-growing list of little things help me grow up? It remains to be seen, but then again, I’m sticking to yet another little nugget of wisdom: take it one day at a time.


Giving Back to Baltimore


Name: Ariel Rosen

Year: Class of 2014

Hometown: Chappaqua, NY

Major: Public Health

Minors: Spanish and Psychology


I could go on and on listing the characteristics of Johns Hopkins that make it different from other universities. Students here are exceptionally crazy about lacrosse, and we’ve all found ourselves screaming, “One, two, three, four, we want more!” on the sidelines dozens of times. There is no other university that even comes close to some of our academic programs, ranging from those departments in humanities, engineering, and sciences. Although I am not positive, I also doubt any other university has FFC apple pie and “granogurt” even remotely as good as ours (seriously, things like that do matter). And finally, the community service opportunities at Hopkins are incomparable and have exceeded my highest expectations.

Paige, Nora, and I do a lot philanthropy work as part of Greek life.

At Hopkins, my absolute favorite thing in the world is volunteering in Baltimore. Some of my friends here don’t quite understand why I love volunteering so much, and they make fun of me for wanting to save the world. Part of me loves community service for the selfish reasons. Volunteering is refreshing. It reenergized me. It gives my days more purpose and meaning. It allows me to explore my passions and discover new interests. I am able to meet diverse people that I would have never crossed paths with otherwise.

However, an even bigger part of me loves community service because I believe that, if done the right way, community service can have lasting impacts on others. Volunteering gives communities hope where hope is needed. Making real, tangible differences in people’s lives is truly the greatest thing in the world. I believe all people have a responsibility to give back to their community. It is much, much more about the personal connection and the relationship you build with others than the “class” of people you are helping. I can truly say that I have loved volunteering at Hopkins because of the close bonds I have formed with some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met. I promise that anyone that comes to Hopkins will find countless ways they can impact the greater Baltimore community.

Me in the basement of a Habitat for Humanity house as a freshman.

All of the community service groups at Hopkins are housed by the Center for Social Concern ( Taken straight from the website, “the Center for Social Concern emphasizes the value of service with others, rather than the commonly accepted concept of service to others”- an idea that accurately reflects the mindset of our volunteers. The Center for Social Concern is in charge of over sixty community service groups on campus, community-based federal work-study programs, community-based learning (CBL) opportunities, and it assists with the Hopkins Social Innovation Program. As well, it is in charge of the community impact internship program (during the summer) and the alternative break programs (during intersession and Spring break).

I am on the Student Advocacy Board of the Center for Social Concern, which I absolutely love! It is only October, yet it would take me forever to write about all that we have done so far this year. One of our most exciting projects is the establishment of after-school music programs at Abbottston Elementary School. My friend, Hannah, and I are working hard to implement and design these programs. We have been meeting with the new principal of the school and the greater Homewood community leader to establish these programs. This is an enormous achievement for the school, as these will be the first free after-school programs ever offered there. Other SAB projects have included planning the president’s day of service and mini-day of service, designing a mural tour of Baltimore, advancing the CBL initiative, advertising and painting banners, planning events at Nolans, expanding the profile of each CSC group, and much more. If you have any more questions about what we do, feel free to stop by the office!

Me and my good friend, Alexa, who plays sports with kids at a recreation center for Crossover Basketball.

Besides being on the Student Advisory Board, I am involved in the Tutorial Project and Healthy Community Initiative. The Tutorial Project is definitely the Center for Social Concern’s largest and most established club. It is a tutoring service where elementary school children receive one-on-one help in reading, writing, and math from Hopkins students. As an organizer, I have the lovely opportunity to get to know all of the kids in the program, ride the bus with them, and go to their houses for testing and get a sense of their life at home. I absolutely love being on the executive team and I love all of the other organizers! Also, I am a member of Healthy Community Initiative. I lead workshops on nutrition and wellbeing and lead food demonstrations to parents and children at Waverly Elementary School. My freshman year, I was also involved in Habitat for Humanity, another great organization. The Center for Social Concern has volunteer opportunities in a plethora of areas, including the arts, technology, music, computers, tutoring, sports, language, nutrition, and health- so there is definitely something for everyone.

The jungle visits Tutorial Project- such a crazy event!

On a final note, it is true that college students often get caught up in their own lives and stay within their “campus bubble”. However, it is worthy to note that after I get back from studying for my Spanish midterm, reading articles for my sociology class, and watching several episodes of “The Wire” for my public health class (alright, the last one is actually really enjoyable), I am happy to end each day knowing that I also reached out to the surrounding community and did some good for humanity. You should definitely take advantage of all that Hopkins has to offer. The Center for Social Concern is loaded with incredible opportunities to give back to Baltimore, and it truly makes Hopkins a unique, one-of-a-kind university.

Me and my fabulous tutee, Kirsten, at the Tutorial Project office. Working with her was, by far, one of my favorite experiences at Hopkins.

Getting to know someone: The perspective of a Johns Hopkins Ismaili


Name: Khurram Ali

Year: Class of 2012

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

Majors: International Studies, pre-medicine track


Hello all! My name is Khurram Ali and I am an International Studies major here at Hopkins. I am also on the pre-medicine track, so I have taken a broad range of courses at this school.

A picture of my friend Joanna and I after mudsliding on Shriver quad post Hurricane Irene

You are probably wondering “what is he going to do with IR and pre-med?” I want to practice medicine but I also want to do health development work. Part of my inspiration to improve the lives of others comes from my religious faith—the other part comes from my desire to seek knowledge. If you asked me these questions three years ago, I probably would not have been able to say much. But in my time here I have developed a better sense of not  only what I want to do—but whoI want to be.  And the latter is much more important.

I want to begin from a global context. Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of our time is our conflict with those that seek to use violence as political posturing. In the post 9/11 world, the media is filled with images of terrorism and acts of aggression that have erupted outside of the United States in places unfamiliar to many of us. Reporters from all sides of the spectrum (from the Washington Post to the Economist to Al Jazeera) depict our fight against terrorism as a conflict between the East and West.


Wait, what? East vs West?

This makes me feel weird. Because. Well…really? East vs West?

Picture of Samuel P Huntington, author of Clash of Civilizations. Are we really in a clash of civilizations? I don’t think so.

For 17 years of my life I have lived in the West. Both my parents are from the East and I was born in Karachi. So where do I belong?

I am reminded of Samuel Huntington’s famous book “The Clash of Civilizations”.  Are we at war with the East? I mean West?

As a Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim, and as a western-educated American, I am prone to say that we are instead (as Edward Said and others have noted) in the midst of a “clash of ignorances.”

My religious community is led by the Aga Khan IV, the 49th descendant of the Holy Prophet. The Aga Khan preaches a message of peace and unity. He cites the Qu’ran to explain that all members of our world come from a single source (in Islam, God) and that from that single source we have matured into different creatures with unique characteristics and abilities. He notes this to remind us that diversity is a strength—indeed, human beings are different so that we can learn from each other and find solidarity in what makes us unique. But he also notes this to point to our common humanity—despite being different, we all live together as one, with a responsibility to our planet and God’s creation.

The Aga Khan, meeting with President John F. Kennedy during the Cold War.

Understanding this notion of pluralism has been central to my experience at Johns Hopkins. Indeed, the people that I have met here come from all walks of life—and getting to know them has been my greatest reward.

I wish I could tell you all about my friends and the cool things that they do—but then I would never be able to stop writing. I will say this: one thing that all my closest friends here have in common is a strong desire to learn from others. We enjoy getting to know people and we love making new and exciting friendships. Why does this matter?

It matters if we want to stop things like the conflict between “the East and the West.” Policy is important, but so is understanding that democracy relies on pluralism—alienation and exclusionism creates divisions in our society that are unacceptable in a truly democratic ethos. Learning to get to know others is a fundamental skill—we might have differences, but realizing that those differences should help us understand each other is so much better than letting differences preclude us from getting to know each other. I think this is true for college life as much as it is true for life in general.

My religious faith has helped me understand the value of pluralism—but my experiences here have helped me live by that principle.  Thinking of this really makes me hope that Huntington is wrong, because according to him “a clash of civilizations” is inevitable. But if we live in a clash of ignorances, we can hope to prevent conflict by actually learning from each other.

I wish you the best of luck on that uniquely enjoyable and enriching journey.

The Residential Advisors in Wolman Hall and me. We really bonded during RA camp.

Habitat for Humanity Pre-O


Name: Billy Kang

Year: 2014

Hometown: Rochester Hills, Michigan

Area of Study: Biomedical Engineering


If there’s anything better than college (and trust me, college is wonderful), it’s college without classes. Of course, I didn’t know that when I signed up for the Habitat Pre-O back in summer 2010 – I pretty much sent in the application on impulse. Regardless, Habitat Pre-O ended up being best start of my college career than I could ever hope for.

At the Inner Harbor

So what is Habitat for Humanity? Long story short, Habitat is an international organization that focuses on building homes for people in need. The organization is rather large, and I suspect many of you have already heard of Habitat in your high schools. They host building projects both in the States and overseas; at Hopkins, the chapter mainly participates on weekend work trips into nearby communities (which is also another great experience).

More specifically, what is the Habitat Pre-Orientation event? This is something that is exclusive to incoming freshmen. For this program, the participants come on campus a week prior to move in and orientation. During this week, we go into neighboring communities (Remington and Sandtown) and coordinate with the local Habitat organization and build houses.

Meeting all the new faces and playing ninja - after the icebreakers.

Why should you do this? First, you move in early. Avoiding the whole mess of move in day was already worth every penny of the registration fee. You cannot truly appreciate what the previous statement means until you witness the lines and the chaos of move in day. Second, you will be doing something great for the community – can’t argue with that. Third, the advantage of Habitat Pre-O is that you’ll be on campus for a whole week prior to move in. Plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the campus before orientation even started. The upperclassmen supervisors will take you to places such as Inner Harbor and Towson Mall. You’ll know what’s up in the area before everyone else. Fourth, the people you’ll meet on this program will most likely become some of your best friends on campus. College can be daunting in terms of the sheer amount of new faces you’ll encounter in the first few days. The pre-o program eases you into college by giving you a small group to work with – a much better alternative than the typical, repetitive orientation conversation: “Hi, how are you? What’s your name and major? Blah blah blah…” Oh, did I mention you will have fun? Above all else, you will enjoy the experience. College without any classes or tests is a dream come true, this pre-o is precisely the chance for you to live a week of this dream. In another word, if you want a pressure free, relaxed and fun start to your college career – this is the program for you.

The pre-o group posing in front of the church. We were nasty from sweating and smelled like vinegar, but no one cares (or at least from the picture). See all the smiles? Yea, that’s us having fun.

Advertisement asides, I want to share a personal story. The first day of my pre-o experience was in a church in Remington. They had a gym that badly needed repair. I guess they decided the gym floor was too dirty (honestly, I think they were just unprepared for us that day) so we ended up with the job of scrubbing the gym floor – with these tiny sponges. It sounds horrible, and it is. But during this time I got to talk to the rest of the people, nothing drives conversation like a bunch of 18 years old pretending (but really, we worked) to scrub floor. Not only did I familiarize myself with the group, I also had a chance to talk to a senior, who helpfully gave me plenty of advice about which classes to take and what clubs to join. Despite our slow progress, we were eventually able to clean the floor up. Thankfully, over the week we moved on to more back breaking jobs like shoveling bricks and mixing cements. But more importantly, we bonded, and there’s no better sense of relieve when you realize you fit in: that there are people you like here – in the end, you made the right choice coming to Hopkins. Make no mistakes, Habitat will make you work. But the bonding time you’ll get with your new classmates is invaluable, and it’s the part of the pre-o that I treasure most.

Cement is hard to mix, but it's fun.

It may seem like a bold move, to voluntarily come on campus a week before orientation. It may even seem scary for you, I was myself very nervous when my plane landed (my Hopkins experience started at the airport, I shared a cab with Alex, another Habitat Pre-O participant, on the way to campus). But let me assure you – you will have the time of your life. Very few things compare with the feeling you get admiring the backyard you paved that you know will help someone who really needs it. But Habitat Pre-O is a great program in that not only do you get a chance to do great deeds, you get to truly bond with your group – habitat makes the whole process fun. Simply put, the program will make your college career start so much smoother and easier. Regardless if I convinced you that pre-o is an amazing program or not, I’ll give it one last try: the pre-o program is exclusive to freshman. Yes, this means that this is the only time in your life you’ll be able to do this. Sometimes, a leap of faith is what it takes, I took it – and never regretted it since. I just spent the whole entry telling to scream a definitive “yes”, but now as yourself, are you willing to take your leap of faith? Start your college career with something you’ll never forget – sign up for Habitat Pre-O.

The Adventures of JHU H4H: How Power Tools, Pumpkin Pete & the Plague Changed Everything.


Name: Gena Marie Upshaw
Year: Class of 2012
Area of Study: Public Health Studies
Hometown: Greensboro, NC



Spring semester has just begun and we have just gotten off of the break following fall semester.  Some schools call this break Winter Break but, here at the Hop it is referred to as the blessing of Intersession. Intersession lasts about 6 weeks and includes almost the entire month of January.  During intersession short one and two credit classes are offered (at no additional cost) during the first three weeks of January. In addition to these mini courses, study abroad trips to places such as Ghana, Spain, and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  This year I had friends travel to all three places, cool I know….. But I was determined to have some adventures of my own.  No I didn’t travel the world or take the beloved wine tasting class, but I did manage to do a little traveling of my own. I decided to participate in the annual Habitat for Humanity Intersession service trip.

The Mission

Habitat for Humanity is the organization that made this adventure possible. H4H provides affordable housing to those in need through building these homes with 100% volunteer labor.  The JHU Habitat for Humanity works every weekend in the city of Baltimore and plans two trips around the country a year; one for Intersession and the other for Spring Break. This year the destination for the Intersession trip was Louisiana.  One of the cool aspects of this trip was that we did not remain in one city the entire time. We were housed in Slidell, built houses in Abita Springs, and spent our nights in New Orleans. The weather was not as lovely as I thought it would be, but it was way better than the freezing temperatures and snow storm that swept through Baltimore that same week.  It rained the first day and was basically muggy all week, possibly the cause of “the plague” (as explained later).  However, that did not prevent us from having an amazing week.

The Work

Randy Bell, c/o 2013, roofing

Over the course of the week we built a house.  There were a few construction supervisors, but for the most part we did most of the work. The tasks involved everything from the interior work of painting and caulking to roofing and bracing the ceiling beams. Bracing the ceiling beams was my favorite thing to do.  This task involved me to climb up into what would become the ceiling, balance on narrow wooden beams and hammer on reinforcement boards sideways. When I first climbed up there 20-something feet in the air, and straddled those 3 inch wide wooden beams I was almost certain that I would fall and break something. By lunch I began to trust my body and by the end of the day I felt like Tarzan.

Myself, cutting boards for the roof, thankful for basic physics!

It was amazing to see the sense of community in the Abita Springs, LA. It seemed like the majority of the houses in this community were Habitat homes. It is safe to say that every person we encountered was friendly; every stranger waved and spoke to us.  Sometimes neighbors would walk over to our building site and pick up trash or construction debris without asking. People were so helpful and grateful. People thanked us left and right. I was truly blessed to be able to work on this community.

The Base Camp

Group pic in the fellowship hall of Peace Lutheran Ev. Church. Mardi Gras came early for us.

We did not stay in a five star hotel but we did stay at Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church.  In my opinion it was better, for the price we paid we were living large.  The church had a volunteer center composed of four bedrooms with numerous bunk-beds in each room, multiple bathrooms and a lounge that included a 57’ flat screen and computer lab.  There also was an outdoor basketball goal, a bonfire pit and a separate fellowship hall.  Every day we were provided with breakfast, bag lunches for the work site and a dinner. The lady who prepared our food was an amazing cook and had amazing stories to match.  In addition to the prepared meals, we had access to hundreds of baked goods and other goodies…literally hundreds. This was because Wal-Mart made weekly donations to the church and we were told to have anything that we wanted.  We were literally begged to eat all as much as we could because of the surplus. The first night a group of us explored the like children in a candy store, but it was better because we had adult size appetites and everything was freeeeeeeee.


TEAM Humphrey

The group was composed of 8 Hopkins students ranging from freshmen to seniors.  The personalities were as diverse as majors, which believe it or not, made for great group chemistry.  Prior to the trip I only knew two people and by the end of the trip I considered the other five friends.  On the second day the group was divided due to additional help needed on another work site.  The big group became team Wilburßnamed after the trip coordinator.  My group, which consisted of only three members (as seen above), became known as team Humphrey ß named after a lizard we captured on our site.

The Plague

A series of random sicknesses, latter dubbed “the plague”, swept through the group like wild fire.  It first appeared on day two. The interesting thing was that it was not a single virus; everyone had different ailments and symptoms.  Team Wilbur got hit first and hard. My team remained untouched until the second to last day when one member developed a sore throat and cough.  It was a sad, sad day. We blame this day on the fact that we rode in team Wilbur’s car (the infected car) the day before. During this ride, I held my breath, JK. But I was very aware of the germs floating around in the air, on the door knobs, seatbelts, seats, windows, etc(Public Health Major J), so as soon as I got out of the car I washed my hands.  Fortunately the end of the trip the plague had loosened its grip on the group and almost everyone was back to full health.

The Burning of Pumpkin Pete

First I would like to make clear that this is NOT VOODOO. Now that this has been established I shall explain how Pumpkin Pete came into existence; his rise and fall.  One day a pumpkin was bought for two dollars, with the simple intentions of roasting its seeds.  We had already been planning to utilize the churches’ bonfire pit for marshmallow roasting and smores that night.  The time came; the bonfire was  made, marshmallows were roasted and the team leader took the pumpkin inside to dig out its seeds.  When he returned the pumpkin was no longer a regular pumpkin….it had a face and was given the name Pete. Pete’s seeds were roasted and many shenanigans later he too wound up in the fire.  Though he did not melt like the Wicked Witch of the West, Pete lived a great life and thoroughly entertained 8 Hopkins students on their winter break.



Preservation Hall musician

The city of New Orleans was definitely an experience to say the least.  Despite the plague, we managed to have a blast in the city.  We spent the majority of our time in the French Quarter. There every other shop was filled with voodoo things; paraphernalia, fortune tellers, etc’. It was pretty interesting…I guess. The Voodoo really was not my thing and slightly creeped me out, so I did not stay for too long and refused to get my Tarot Card reading. But some of the people in the group really like it.  Bourbon Street was exactly how I pictured it would be. It was filled with the voices of hundreds of people, music from endless jazz clubs and karaoke bars, inebriated individuals, and horse poop. The horse poop was a result of the mounted police force that patrolled the French Quarter.  The horses were magnificent! I was in awe of their size and pure beauty.  Over the course of our nightly escapades through NOLA a few of the spots we visited a few spots worth mention; BubbaGump Restaurant (a Forrest Gump themed restaurant <<overrated and expensive>>), the famous Café Du Monde (amazing beignets!), the historic Preservation Hall (a living museum of all things Jazz<<life performance = greatness >>), and Jackson Square (feral cat central).  New Orleans was a blast! It was the first time I traveled there, and I am sure it will not be my last.

In short, the moral of this blog is to make the most of Intersession.  There is always something fun and exciting to get into here at Hopkins whether it is through service, personal enrichment, or a program simply designed for fun. There are over 300 student clubs and organizations that specialize in everything from Habitat for Humanity to Tae Kwon Do. Take advantage of what Hopkins has to offer and there will never be a dull moment during your undergraduate experience.

A Niche for Everyone


Name: Emily Nink

Year: Class of 2014

Hometown: Milwaukee, WI

Intended Programs of Study: Spanish &  Global Environmental Change and Sustainability

I’m a freshman double majoring in Spanish and Global Environmental Change and Sustainability. I was born in Boston, but I grew up in Milwaukee, WI. In high school I was involved in lots of activities, but my two favorites were the Global Youth Leadership Institute and my mission trip to Appalachia. Both of these inspired my interest in sustainability, GYLI through its experiential curriculum involving environmentalism, and my mission trip because of the effects of mountaintop removal mining in the area.

Clintwood, VA on a mission trip with GYLI; India and Costa Rica, where I've traveled

This time last year, Hopkins was the last place I imagined myself going to college. I applied on a last minute whim and didn’t even bother checking online to see if I got in when the time came. When the package came in the mail, I saw that I had been admitted and tossed it in my desk drawer where it stayed until the last week of April.

It wasn’t that I had anything against going to Hopkins, I just saw myself somewhere, well, cooler. I’ve always been a city girl, even if growing up in Milwaukee, WI., doesn’t sound like such a big city to some of you ‘coasties’. I pictured myself in Boston, studying in eco-cafes and relying on the T to get around. I saw myself surrounded by hipsters, foreigners, and eccentric music, not kids who I had heard studied all the time and eschewed social interaction.

So how did I end up here at JHU? Well, I received the Bloomberg Scholarship and realized it would be a huge financial mistake to pass up a top-notch Hopkins education at an affordable price. And, big surprise, JHU turned out to be a perfect fit for me as well. Turns out Hopkins is pretty cool after all, and all those myths about everyone sitting in the library have been proved false over the course of my first semester in college. Hopkins is close enough to downtown Baltimore to satisfy my love of cities and yet has a beautiful campus unparalleled by any other school I’ve visited.

Much to my amazement, I found that Hopkins was also home to an awesome environmental awareness on campus. I joined the Eco-Reps, a group of freshman that does environmental projects on campus. I’m also involved in a campus garden and a new group called Real Foods Hopkins. Some of the projects I’ve participated in this semester include a water bottle demonstration on the quad, a waste audit in which we separated and measured recyclables and trash, a ‘jam session’ in which we canned and jammed vegetables from our garden, and green week, which consisted of a whole week of green activities across campus. I was also excited to find that there is a farmer’s market within walking distance of campus, and an Office of Sustainability right here on campus that is committed to making Hopkins as sustainable as possible. (If you want to find out more about sustainability at Hopkins, check out their website at

Jam Session and Eco-Reps

It’s a time of great exploration for me, and it can be for you too. Don’t allow yourself to be narrow-minded or influenced by stereotypes as you apply to colleges. I thought I knew what I wanted last year, but I turned out to be completely wrong. Wherever you go to school, allow yourself an open mind and spirit of curiosity. I’m so glad I took a risk by coming to Hopkins; opportunities here are endless and there is a niche for everyone.