New Kensington students working in Navajo Nation during spring break

March 09, 2016

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. — When they could be unwinding in Florida or Cancun after a week of midterm exams, nine Penn State New Kensington students are spending spring break, March 7-11, at the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The students committed to the hybrid community service trip that combines helping environmental efforts and underserved communities, while also learning about the Navajo culture and history.

Two staff members, Lauren Blum, student life coordinator, and Corinne Coulson, enrollment services specialist, accompanied the students to the Native American-governed territory in northeastern Arizona. Bill Carney, Trevor Guercio, Lynsie Headley, Shannon Josefoski, Wati Kumwenda, Jon McCabe, Brittany Miller, Vanessa Sacco, and Ashley Worlds left March 4 for the Copper State. They are performing a variety of functions at a ranch in Tuba City, home base for the New Kensington contingent.

“Each year I am amazed by our students’ dedication to community service over spring break,” Blum said. “The growth and development of our students from start to finish is amazing. One of the true blessings of my job is to experience this with our students.”

The students are helping with various construction projects, such as building a sweat lodge and taking part in a traditional Navajo experience. A sweat lodge is a hut made with natural materials that is used for purification ceremonies and prayer. They will partake in other Navajo ceremonies, including making alkaan, also known as Navajo cake. It takes teamwork to create the cake, which is made in a 3-foot-wide fire pit. The main ingredient is ground white corn meal. The production is part ceremonial bonding, part religious experience and part delicious.

In addition to the service projects, the eight-day goodwill journey includes sightseeing trips to the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur Tracks, a site in Tuba City where dinosaurs left their footprints more than 200 million years ago. One of the museums they will visit features the Navajo Code Talkers exhibit, which was made famous by the 2002 movie “Windtalkers.” Code talkers were Native American Marines who used their native language during World War II to communicate secret messages over the radio. The Germans did not know the language and could not break the code.

“While this trip is offering students a variety of sightseeing opportunities, the students will be impacted by learning about the Navajo Nation through meeting community members, working alongside them, and reflecting on the entire experience through daily discussions and journaling,” Coulson said. “By actively learning and participating, the students are becoming active citizens and more aware of the world around them.”

Navajo Nation comprises 27,000 square miles in three of the Four Corners states: northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Colorado is the other state that constitutes Four Corners, a region where the boundaries of all four states meet. A monument marks Navajo Nations’ boundary with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado.

Tuba City is located within the Painted Desert near the western edge of the Navajo Nation. The Painted Desert is known for its brilliant and varied colors of rock. Part of the desert lies in the Petrified Forest.

Using spring break to help others is an annual rite for New Kensington students. Two years ago, Washington, D.C., was the destination, and Puerto Rico was the trendy hotspot last year. Blum is the lynchpin for all the excursions.

“I am so proud of the students who gave up their personal time to serve others,” Blum said. “We always have great groups, and I looked forward to every trip.”

The campus travelers return to Upper Burrell on March 12. The final project for the trip is a campus presentation, scheduled for noon on Wednesday, March 30, in Room 140 in the Science Building. The students will show photos and videos while talking about learning and working with the Navajo people.

Classes resume on Monday, March 14. After the break, there are seven weeks remaining in the semester. Final exams conclude May 6, and commencement is scheduled for May 7.

For Penn State academic calendars, visit

  • Spring Break Arizona

    Penn State New Kensington students visited the Canyon River Gorge and Grand Canyon March 7 as a part of their spring break trip to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. 

    IMAGE: Penn State New Kensington
Last Updated March 24, 2016