Instead of spending spring break relaxing, a group of more than thirty students donated their time helping people around the country.
Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF) was started in 2003 by four college freshmen at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Since then, it has branched out to 32 universities in 10 states.
“Our mission is to reveal leadership through service, action and relationships,” senior Rachel LaForce, who has been involved with STLF since the fall of 2016, said. “We basically go out into the community, do service projects, work on our leadership skills and try to make the world a better place.”
Each month, the MSUM chapter of STLF plans a volunteer event in the Fargo-Moorhead area. These range from raking leaves to putting up Christmas decorations in nursing homes. However, the biggest service event is the Pay It Forward Tour, a week of service projects in different cities during spring break.
“We get to a city, stay for a night and get up in the morning to do a service project in that city for about three to four hours,” LaForce said. “Then we get on the bus, drive four or five hours to the next city and do it again.”
They traveled to six cities over nine days, ending in Denver, Colorado. There they met up with STLF chapters from the University of Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State University Mankato to do their big service project, which involved cleaning up a park.
Since STLF is focused on cultivating leadership skills, it has an atypical officer structure. Instead of the standard president and vice president hierarchy, there is a group of students who are equal leaders. The Chapter Core, which LaForce is a part of, runs the service events around the Fargo-Moorhead community. The Bus Core plans the Pay It Forward Tour according to the parameters given by the national board.
LaForce joined because of her friend Leah Hoekstra, a junior who has been part of STLF since her junior year of high school. This was Hoekstra’s fifth Pay It Forward Tour.
“It’s amazing how much of a difference one week can make,” Hoekstra said. “The difference you make in each community you go in is so impactful, and you don’t understand how amazing the trip is until you go on it.”
Though there are challenges with spending so much time on a bus with a large group of people, the trip was filled with new memories. Both Hoekstra and LaForce agreed that their favorite service project of the week was at a museum in Clayton, New Mexico. They finished early and had hours of free time, so the owners gave them a tour and told them the history of the town.
“Our service turned into being company for them,” LaForce said. “They were so excited to have young people there interested in what they were doing.”
“I think that was the one moment where we all kind of realized how much of a difference we’d already made in each other’s lives and how close we’d already gotten,” Hoekstra said. “Someone I probably wouldn’t have talked to just on the street, we’re sitting next to each other, bonding and having a good laugh.”
At the end of each day, everyone would get into a circle and go over the good things that happened through what they call “Yeah Buddies.”
For LaForce and other soon-to-be graduates, the last night was bittersweet.
“The very last night during our ‘Yeah Buddies,’ I looked at another girl who’s also graduating. We made eye contact across the circle, and we both started tearing up because this was our last experience, our last Pay It Forward Tour,” LaForce said.
Even though this was LaForce’s last tour, she is looking toward the future.
“This organization really does make an impact on your life,” LaForce said. “I’m sad that I’m leaving it, but I’m also looking forward to the good that STLF is going to continue to do across the country.”
Hoekstra still has a year left to be a part of STLF, but she is already planning to spread the mission further.
“When I teach in schools, I plan to be the advisor for that just so that it’s at every school I go to,” Hoekstra said. “I plan to bring it to other students’ lives so that it makes a difference in their lives, rather than just mine.”