Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Uhart Alumna Helps Rebuild New Orleans Study Abroad Alumni Series: Where Are They Now?

Johanna Schumacher
B.S., Architectural Engineering Technology (’10)

Johanna graduated in May 2010 with a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Architectural Engineering Technology from the University of Hartford.  During her senior year at UHA, Johanna studied abroad in Panama.  In fact, Johanna was a key player in organizing and launching a study abroad program for UHA undergraduate and graduate students in collaboration with the non-governmental organization Global Architecture Brigades (GAB).  The group of 17 students spent 10 days in Panama during their winter term in January, 2010.  They lived among the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group and worked with local community members to collaboratively design a sustainable, eco-friendly hostel for surf tourists.

Below, Johanna responds to our questions about her activities after graduation and current efforts to help rebuild communities in New Orleans.

Current location: 
New Orleans, Louisiana

Current employer:
St. Bernard Project through AmeriCorps.

(AmeriCorps is a U.S. federal government program that is a division of the Corporation for National & Community Service.  More than 85,000 individuals join AmeriCorps annually.  The work done by AmeriCorps aims to meet critical community needs in education, public safety, health and the environment).

What made you decide to apply for this position?
I wanted to get construction experience and do something I thought was interesting.

Tell us a little about your work for AmeriCorps:

I work with about 50 other AmeriCorps volunteers who all have different jobs with the St. Bernard Project. I am serving a 10-month term which started in October of 2010 and will end in August, 2011. I am a Site Supervisor and am in charge of leading volunteers in the reconstruction of homes hit by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.

What is a typical day like for you?

I start work at 8:00 am. Volunteers show up on site by 8:30 am. I teach them how to do the tasks they need to do in order to rebuild a house for the homeowners who have applied for assistance through the St. Bernard Project. The stages that I am responsible for teaching the volunteers are: insulation, drywall, spackling, painting, flooring, doors, door trim, windows and floors. Volunteers serve for varying periods of time, from a half day to a few months. Most groups are here for a week and work Monday through Friday. We are also open on Saturdays, but I do not work on Saturdays every week. 

What has been the best part of your experience so far?

Getting to know the homeowners I am helping and seeing their faces when their homes are finally finished. All of the people we are helping have been waiting for over 5 years to move home after the devastating experience of Hurricane Katrina.

Any other highlights you would like to mention?

The St. Bernard Project has rebuilt (as of today) 356 homes in the New Orleans area. There is still quite a bit of rebuilding left to be done after Hurricane Katrina. Even with all the non-profits helping Katrina survivors as they are now, it will take 16 more years to totally rebuild the homes that Katrina destroyed in 2005.

Our busiest time for volunteers is the spring (when spring break is happening all over the country). It is great to meet students from all the different high schools and colleges. I work with between 2 and 17 volunteers on a site at a time (and sometimes even more if I have another Site Supervisor helping me).

What have you learned as a result of your AmeriCorps experience? What skills are you enhancing in New Orleans?

I am learning great leadership and management skills. I am required to keep track of the materials I need for the house and the schedule for which it will be completed. Also, I am learning how to build a house by doing it myself-- which is the best way for me to learn!

Tell us about the community where you are living:
I am currently living in Treme, which is a neighborhood well known for its musicians and culture. New Orleans is almost like a different country. The weather is tropical, the food is spicy, flavorful seafood and the music is great brass jazz. I also love that most things in the city are relatively inexpensive or free. There are always events happening in parks or museums which include free music. There are people who live here from all over the world, so it’s a great place to meet new people!

What is one of your favorite local dishes? How is it prepared?
It is crawfish season right now, which is great! We have huge crawfish boils which are new to me. Also, the gator [alligator] sausage down here is really good.

You traveled abroad and carried out service work in Panama while studying at the University of Hartford. How did the Panama trip help you develop professionally?
I learned how to plan trips and work with others to accomplish a single project. Collaboration is a really productive way to get big projects done, like going to Panama and designing an eco-hostel for a community. I also learned a little bit about networking.  Traveling to Panama cost quite a bit of money, so I tried to get as much help from [potential donors for the project] as I could. Fundraising for the trip was a challenge that I learned a lot from.

What would you want to say to UHA students who are thinking about going abroad or doing service work?
DO IT! You won't regret it.

Any thoughts about what your next step will be?

I want to get more construction experience and I also want to keep traveling, so I was thinking of getting another AmeriCorps position—that way I can continue with the same type of work that I am doing now.

Any additional thoughts?
COME DOWN TO VOLUNTEER FOR SPRING BREAK or for summer vacation! There are plenty of churches and places that house volunteers for little or no cost, and it is easy to sign up. Visit the project website at:

To learn more about study abroad or service opportunities, you contact Susan Carey in the Study Abroad Office:

Or visit our


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