Alternative Spring Breaks Combine Service, Learning

Many college students will volunteer for domestic or international organizations this spring break.


Instead of relaxing on white, sandy beaches this spring break, thousands of college students will travel around the globe to volunteer for a variety of social justice causes. Known as "alternative spring breaks," these are public-service-oriented trips, planned and led by students, that focus on volunteerism and education about social justice issues in the United States or overseas. From rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina to tutoring students in a remote village in Ecuador, these trips can open students' eyes to issues both close to home and far away. 

[Slide show: Alternative Spring Breaks

After returning from the trips, students realize the universal nature of many of these social issues and work on them in their own campuses and communities, says Samantha Giacobozzi, program director for Break Away, a nonprofit organization that provides alternative break training and resources for its 130 member colleges and universities. "Some students come back saying they'll change their major or career path," she says. "Some come back and think differently about the world a little bit. Many students think it was best experience of their lives." Giacobozzi says that the alternative break can be the catalyst to make students "active citizens" who are engaged in their own communities and become contributing members to society. 

U.S. News spoke with seven schools about their alternative break programs to provide information for prospective and current college students interested in learning about alternative break opportunities. While none of these schools are taking trips to help with disaster relief in Haiti right now, they continue to provide trips all over the country and the world to assist others and learn about other cultures and communities. 

Disaster Relief

Some of the most popular and frequent alternative break trips are focused on post-Hurricane Katrina disaster relief in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss. Many schools have sent several trips to New Orleans each year since the August 2005 hurricane. Joanne Dennis, the alternative breaks coordinator at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, says her school has been sending trips to New Orleans since 2006. Since the trips were so popular, Loyola Marymount recently began sending two trips each year, one in the spring and one in the winter, she says. 

Since the devastating earthquake in Haiti, many alternative break leaders project that country will become a common destination. "Our schools really try very hard to be responsible volunteers. They know for the most part that sending money is what is most important right now" in the case of Haitian relief, Giacobozzi says. "I would absolutely say that Haiti will become an international trip staple, just like New Orleans has become a domestic trip staple, once the dust settles a little." 

[Read College Students, Professors Give Money, Time for Haiti.] 

Innovative Social Justice Issues

There has been a recent shift from focusing on the alternative break destinations to emphasizing the issues specific to the breaks, such as working with the homeless population in Washington or on HIV/AIDS issues in San Francisco, Giacobozzi says. "Now alternative breaks want to look at their programs from a different, dynamic service-learning perspective." She says American University and Loyola Marymount University are strong examples of schools that focus on new and innovative social justice issues but also address old social issues differently. 

Shoshanna Sumka, coordinator of Global and Community-Based Learning at American University, heads the school's alternative break program. In selecting trip proposals from students, an advisory board of students and faculty looks at the underlying causes of social justice issues in a certain part of the world, she says. "We encourage students to ask deeper questions and to ground their proposals in the framework of a larger social movement." 

One example of American University's innovative alternative break trips was a trip to Nepal led by DB Bishwakarma, president of the International Commission for Dalit Rights. Bishwakarma, who has a master's degree in sociology from American University, led a group of seven students for two weeks this past summer to visit Nepalese communities to discuss the rights of the Dalit caste, the "untouchables" of South Asian countries, including Nepal. The students even met with the country's prime minister.