Alternative Spring Breaks Combine Service, Learning

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

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"This trip had a completely comprehensive component of working with the grass-roots community, interacting with activists, meeting with political officials, and then lobbying at an international policy level," Bishwakarma says. "It had a great impact in the community where we provided support and for the individuals who engaged in the trip." He says the group will return this summer, and he hopes there will be more such trips in the future. 

At Loyola Marymount, Dennis says that part of the program's mission is to "promote service and cultural exchange on the local, national, and international level." She says, "We send students to places they may not otherwise visit through trips that will inspire them throughout the rest of their lives." For instance, the university sponsors a summer trip to Seoul, where students volunteer at an orphanage and learn about international adoption issues. Some students have gone to Cuernavaca, Mexico, during winter break to work on lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender and gender issues. The students met with women, youth, and indigenous groups, as well as LGBT activists. 

While 75 percent of American University's trips and 50 percent of Loyola Marymount's trips involve volunteering overseas, there are many innovative social justice trips taking place closer to home in North and South America. For students interested in volunteering in Central and South America specifically on youth issues, the University of Virginia has a diversity of offerings. Students can work in locales ranging from Costa Rica to Colombia and Brazil to Belize, all focusing primarily on tutoring and working with underprivileged youth and families.

For students who want to work on important domestic issues, the majority of Xavier University's trips take place in the United States. One of the unusual trips the Cincinnati school runs is its annual mystery trip, says Gillian Halusker, a senior who is chair of Xavier's alternative break student club. Each year, students can sign up for a trip wherein they are told the social justice issue they will be working on but will not know where until they leave. This focuses the students' attention entirely on the issue at hand, which this year will be animal rights.

Vanderbilt University also offers a wide variety of domestic trips, all of which are named after songs. On the "Pretty Woman" trip, students work with an organization mentoring young girls in Atlanta; for "I Believe I Can Fly," students go to St. Louis to work with a group that repairs older planes to fly humanitarian aid around the world. 

Schools also try to organize trips for students to make a direct impact on their campus communities. Xavier runs a trip to work on inner-city youth education in Cincinnati. Loyola Marymount University offers trips to volunteer and to learn about immigration issues in East Los Angeles. The University of Virginia's alternative spring break program runs a trip to volunteer with an after-school youth program in Charlottesville. 

[See our Best Colleges: Service Learning list.] 

Major Components of Alternative Breaks

Students plan and lead alternative break trips, and most schools use Break Away's "Eight Quality Components" to assist in executing successful alternative break trips. Predeparture education is one of the main components to ensure participants know about the social justice issue they will be working on. For spring break trips, students apply in October and begin weekly or monthly predeparture meetings and fund raising for the trip in the fall. Some schools subsidize trip costs or offer scholarships for students receiving financial aid. 

Most schools focus on the reflection component, where students discuss the social justice issue addressed during and after the trips. Matt Dickey, president of the University of Virginia's alternative spring break program, says the trips increase students' awareness of social, economic, and political issues around the world and encourage them to continue working on these issues. "We don't want students to walk away feeling like they've washed their hands of the issue. The focus of our program is to show how much more work has to be done."