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.
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."
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.
"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."
Also, all alternative break trips emphasize including students from diverse backgrounds on the trip. Sarah Collins, a University of Virginia alumna who led six alternative break trips while she was a student, says, "I met people on my alternative break trips from different social circles on campus who I never would have interacted with otherwise, and they are some of my closest friends today."
Staying true to the marriage of service and education on these alternative break trips, many colleges allow students to get academic credit for participating on trips. At James Madison University, there are three courses that have a required alternative break component. A social work class travels to Wise County, Va., to work in the rural Appalachian community; an anthropology/social work class travels to the Caribbean island nation of Dominica to work in local communities; and a creative writing class travels to Belize to work on education issues. Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, with a schoolwide mission focusing on faith and service, has a class studying diversity and disaster in which students do restoration work with a ministry group in New Orleans during spring break. American University offers credit in the School of International Service for students who do extra independent work after the alternative break trip.
Year-Round Service Trips
While the majority of alternative break trips take place during the week of spring break, most schools are beginning to offer winter and summer alternative break trips that last two to three weeks. Other schools are looking to expand their trips to Thanksgiving break as well. Since 2008, James Madison University has been offering several domestic alternative break trips during the student's weeklong Thanksgiving holiday. One group of students assisted in serving at the "Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless Thanksgiving Dinner" at Turner Field in Atlanta and cleaned dishes for 20,000 people, says Dusty Kirkau, the school's alternative break coordinator. Vanderbilt University's alternative break adviser says the school is looking into sending Thanksgiving trips as well.
After these life-changing experiences, students continue to actively work on social justice issues in their own communities, knowing the issues they work on are universal. "These trips are about creating solidarity with a culture and place that's different from their own," Loyola Marymount's Dennis says. "But what students end up finding is how many similarities we have as humans ... it's pretty amazing how similar people are all across the world."
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