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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

'A voice for the voiceless'
Kiley O’Brien ’25, Assistant Features Editor • July 18, 2024
Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

When service is a photo op


How APEX isn’t promoting a kind of selfless service

When the temperature drops and the candle section in Target makes the much-anticipated shift from candy floral to cozy autumnal scents, there is an instinctive shift in the atmosphere at St. Joe’s.

Typically following the anxiety and stress of midterms, harmony is restored among students as the anticipated announcement of the Appalachian Experience (APEX) leaders dominates all social media. 

It seems like every app from Twitter to Instagram is flooded with photos of students posing in trees, embracing in replicated candid laughter and spewing corny puns about the location they are being sent to.

While I understand the excitement of an impending trip, as I scroll through photos of my peers, I am confronted by the fact that every year and every APEX season I have spent on this campus has made me feel increasingly detached from wanting to be involved in service.

We pride ourselves in being a university that does more, going beyond being just scholars to make an impact in our community. There are dozens of service opportunities available to students at St. Joe’s and for that reason, among many others, I am humbled to be a student at such a generous and selfless university. However, there is something so inherently problematic with the branding and promotion of APEX that each year has angered and disappointed me.

I would venture to say that there is not and never will be, a single St. Joe’s student who has not heard of APEX. It is this campus’ pride and joy, only spoken of positively—untouchable. It is almost administered.

I am exhausted of hearing every fall the same cliché APEX pitch from seemingly every person I encounter here: “you HAVE to sign up for APEX, you’ll cry together and bond with so many people you don’t know, you’ll make so many lifelong friends.”

The push to sign up is never about truly devoting yourself to service and the impact you could have on something much bigger than yourself. Instead, the marketing of the service trip is centered around APEX as an experience for students, a retreat of sorts.

There is nothing harmful about wanting to form stronger bonds with your peers, but if the goal of the trip is to promote inclusion, then the cliques that form as a result of a week in the mountains seems highly contradictory.

Are we so far removed from reality and emotionally barren that crying with strangers on top of a sleeping bag sounds so appealing? Or have we just become so blinded by the alluring cult-like promise of APEX—a way to escape our privileged middle–class lives to have our very own recreation of “Into the Wild.”

I am extremely troubled by the likeness of APEX to the ‘Western Savior Complex’ and ‘voluntourism.’ As defined by The Stanford Daily, “Voluntourism [is] when affluent Westerners spend loads of money for the opportunity to travel to and ‘improve’ a community.” Though it may seem selfless—surrendering your spring break to spend a week doing manual labor with little cellphone reception—APEX is less about “how can I serve,” and more about “how can service benefit me.” We want to feel good about ourselves by ‘helping’ the less fortunate.

The fundamental issue is that people need to be sold on an idea. That is what APEX branding does so well. They advertise and promote service as more than just giving yourself—you get something in return.

APEX attributes valor to those who serve others by making them heroes in their own stories while simultaneously marketing the retreat aspect of the trip as a revamped sense of union and community among your peers. Students become so enveloped in this wonderful and glamourized rendering that they essentially become willing members of the exclusive club.

Perhaps we should confront the fact that some part of each of us is selfish. We want the gratification that service gives. But it is vital to try and see past the charm of APEX and uncover what it really is—privileged students hammering aimlessly on construction sites and snapping photos of the mountains with the caption, “what a rewarding experience #APEX2018.”

Instead of flocking in masses to Appalachia, we should look around our own city. Before running away to go be a hero somewhere else, there are endless projects in Philadelphia that would benefit immensely from the number of people who sign up every year for APEX.

There is no need to fundraise hundreds of dollars to send students to other states when that money could easily be donated to local projects. 

Service, contrary to what APEX makes it seem, is not just a week without your cell phone and sleeping on the floor of a gymnasium to humble you and build character.

Service is about using your privilege to give back, to contribute something of benefit, selflessly. We must remember that the best place to start is home.

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  • A

    AnonymousNov 8, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you for saying something that I have been thinking for years! Finally! Unfortunately, I know that there will be so much backlash about this, but I guess that’s why it is called an “opinion”. I do really appreciate you sharing your REAL thoughts! I completely agree.

    • A

      anonMar 26, 2019 at 11:49 am

      I agree thank you for saying what so many have been thinking!

  • G

    Greg SchusterNov 2, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    My family lives in Ashe County NC and we have been fortunate enough to share friendship, experiences and faith with APEX volunteers from St. Joseph’s. For her 10th birthday, my beautiful daughter Mahaley requested that, instead of providing gifts, friends and family consider providing a donation to our local food pantry… “The Sharing Center.” Our friends from APEX will recognize the name of this food pantry as countless have worked side by side with our community in service there. My daughter, without a doubt, will share that her inspiration for such self-less actions were wholly inspired by our dear APEX family. All those that we have grown close to have changed us not for the service that they offered our community but by their very decision to serve… for just being here. I certainly can not argue with you that work should be done at home but I would argue that we are one human family and that no one is more or less deserving of acts of kindness. The sad fact is that there is plenty of need to go around. Love is Love no matter where it is offered and we are thankful for those that give of themselves here in Ashe county. I am equally thankful for those that choose to serve closer to home. I only wish that we here in Ashe county would have the opportunity to serve alongside you. I am certain that you are a remarkable person with a heart full of love and I wish to thank you personally for the love that you offer others.

  • T

    Tom Breiding, Immersion CoordinatorNov 2, 2018 at 6:52 am

    While the APEX program has reached incredible popularity among St. Joe’s student body on campus, it is important for its participants to know just how much their work is valued here in my home state of West Virginia and throughout Appalachia. I host more than thirty schools each year through the Clifford M. Lewis Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University and year after year I am able to tackle service projects with St. Joe’s APEX groups that simply aren’t possible with other groups who visit. The preparation, training, and communication that take place with the APEX groups is absolutely unmatched and the result is a cooperation, an enthusiasm, an initiative, and a willingness to serve that stand above the many fine universities who’s students I have had the privilege of hosting. The results are evident. Over the years St. Joe’s students have completed large-scale tasks ranging from full scale demolition and hauling to disaster relief, clean-up, and reconstruction for the residents of entire rural communities, all the while providing assistance in schools, shelters, and kitchens in those same communities. After six full years in my position of coordinator and hundreds of immersion trips from schools across the country, I can assure you that the selflessness and preparedness displayed by the St. Joe’s APEX students is unmatched, and it has made all the difference for many of our partners in need here in West Virginia. St. Joe’s students should treasure the APEX program. It is the very finest service/action program of its kind.

  • A

    Alison JoyceNov 2, 2018 at 12:07 am

    Dear Karleigh,

    Your concerns are valid – service is not about ourselves but about others. Your accusation that St. Joe’s does not reach out to those geographically closest to them is completely unfounded. Off the top of my head I can think of at least two different programs that provide countless hours of student service to the local Philly/Camden area per week.
    Here is a link for all of the weekly service opportunities:
    Here is a link for all of the service-learning courses:

    When I was a student, there was a large overlap between students who did APEX and students who participated in Weekly Service and/or service learning courses. Do more research before you malign every APEX participant by saying they do not care about their local community. The overlap may be larger than you are imagining (or perhaps it is smaller than I am imagining, the point is that both of us are making up opinions, neither has done research). And if you’re in the mood, research the percentage of graduates that participated in programs like APEX that are currently involved in some sort of service (either by giving of their free time, by working for a non-profit, or by donating). I’m sincerely curious to see the correlation. APEX is a program that sticks with you. It provides a place for growth. Sometimes that growth happens overnight and sometimes that growth takes time. Do more research before you pronounce judgement.

    I understand your frustration with the “branding” of APEX. But try to separate the messengers (who are often students that are really excited to share an experience that impacted their lives in a meaningful and positive way, and we live in a digital age, so of course they’re using some quippy hashtag and Insta-perfect filtered picture to share it), with the message (that APEX is a service experience that will challenge you, enrich you, and introduce you to some incredible people that you may not have become close with outside of the program).

    Maybe APEX is not something that you will do during your time at St. Joe’s and that’s okay, you are still a person with innate dignity whether or not you’ve been to Appalachia on a service trip. But I encourage you to join a weekly service site or take a service-learning course if you are able. I agree with you that service starts locally. Perhaps effective service is local, but by traveling we can learn better practices that can be applied locally. Perhaps a service trip is not about vain-glory but rather about seeking knowledge elsewhere.

    I encourage you to serve locally and my prayer for you is that as you reach outside yourself to help others, your service experiences are full of wonderful lessons, interactions, and memories.

  • E

    Elizabeth KennedyNov 1, 2018 at 10:32 pm

    These hateful opinions make it blatantly obvious that you are not speaking from a place of experience, but rather ignorance. Although we should not have to justify our reason for enjoying the Appalachian Experience, on a daily basis Saint Joseph’s University also serves over forty service cites in the in greater Philadelphia area.

  • K

    Katie WinslowNov 1, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    If I wrote an article validating stereotypes and stigmas of sororities or the cheerleading team (even though I’ve never been part of either) that would be a problem, so what makes this article okay? Seems like a double standard to me. Many people are involved in different service programs besides APEX, and isn’t doing service somewhere better than nowhere? It doesn’t matter the reason people show up for the program, it just matters that they show up and participate. I agree that people can show up for the wrong reasons and that there is no way to make sure all 500 participants are there for the right reasons. But doing service in a different city does not take away the value. APEX participants have showed up for service and have showed up for people in the Appalachian Region. I’m an SJU alum on a year of service in Denver, does that take away the value of service because it is not Philly? People at SJU are from different cities, does doing service in Philly take away the value because it could have been done in their home city? We serve with and for others at SJU, we are one human family, it does not matter where you are from APEX participants will serve with you and will love you.

    Many sites are against taking photos of the people we serve alongside of and many interactions with people living in the region can not be summed up in a post. I challenge you Karleigh to experience the program, the region, and the community and see if you still feel the same way. I’d be interested to hear your response and more about your objections to the program to better understand where you are coming from. I think this could be a opportunity for many people to be educated on how to change the image of the program and to change the part of it that people dislike in order to get more involved in service, because that’s your goal isn’t it? As well as to change parts of the program that are a problem, I just wish you went about the article in a less attacking way.You wrote your article from a place of judgement and ignorance, you seem to mainly have a problem with the way APEX is portrayed, and having never served with the Appalachian Experience, that is the only material you have to make your judgements. I welcome and challenge you to ask more questions, to get involved and to have more material to create your opinions on besides judging the APEX book by it’s cover, which is far from what SJU is about. Looking forward to hearing from you, Katie Winslow SJU ’18

  • V

    ValermoNov 1, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    We’re reaching new levels of woke never before imaginable.

  • T

    TessOct 31, 2018 at 8:13 am

    As an alumni of St. Joe’s, several parts about this post concern me. When I was a freshman, I signed up for APEX having absolutely no idea what it was. I had never participated in service, reflected on the deep rooted issues facing this country, or traveled to Appalachia. APEX opened my eyes to a group of people so inherently ignored by America that they relied on the service of others to provide strength. I was shocked. This single week, yes a week in which I cried, motivated me to keep learning about these social injustices impacting similar communities in Philadelphia, and in other communities in Appalachia. To call out APEX participants for ignoring their own community in Philadelphia is the same as the president’s misguided opinion that those caravanning through Mexico do not deserve our kindness. People far away from us still matter, sometimes it takes meeting those people to truly understand their story.
    Additionally, the author belittles how APEX functions as a retreat as well as a week of service. To this I say, yes APEX is a retreat as well as a week of service. Without the reflections, there would be little room to discern, to grow, and to fully understand how to move forward with what one learns on APEX. Again, I go back to my experiences on APEX. Reflecting and discerning with my groups allowed me to make stronger connections to the injustices I witnessed in my own home city. The tears I spilled were because I couldn’t believe I had ignored these injustices for so long. I, and many other APEX participants, took these tears and turned them into action. Arguing that serving with and for those in Appalachia instead of those in Philadelphia shows me that this author needs to do a little more crying and a lot more discerning.

  • P

    proud APEX participantOct 31, 2018 at 12:53 am

    It’s disappointing that APEX is being misconceived. As an alumni of SJU, I can fullheartedly say that these trips shaped my college experience. Yes, you’ll see photos and promotion of the program on social media which is how word spreads in this day and age. The trips themselves, however, are not photo shoots or cryfests. These trips are a way to help those in other communities- whether that be through social interactions, physical labor, prayers, and more. Documenting and sharing APEX on social media (as many would with any other trip) is a way to let others know of its impact both in our lives and those we serve. It is a way to say “hey, this changed my life & those I’ve served-I think you’d really love it too.” It isn’t until you participate in the program yourself that you’ll realize this article is based solely off of snippets you’ve seen/heard on campus. I promise that if you go on APEX, you’ll love it just as much as the hundreds of kids that do. You’re entitled to your opinion just as much as the next person, but I cannot sit back and let this amazing program and the hard working staff and students behind it be misrepresented through one article.