As the end of October approaches, many college students are planning for winter break, and some are even thinking ahead to spring break. According to experts, students are likelier than ever to consider volunteering in soup kitchens or building affordable homes on an "alternative" break, rather than drinking and lounging on the beach or skiing.
The Atlanta-based Break Away, a nonprofit that works with about 150 colleges, or "chapter schools," has seen a steady annual increase in student participation of 10 percent to 15 percent in the past few years, according to Samantha Giacobozzi, Break Away's programs director. In 2010, 72,000 students volunteered on alternative breaks, and Break Away expects about 80,000 to participate this year, she says.
But Giacobozzi doesn't think alternative breaks, which started in an organized fashion in the early 1980s, will eclipse the popularity of traditional winter and spring breaks any time soon. "I'd love to think so," she says. "I don't think [alternative breaks] are so widespread yet."
Leah Schklar, manager of social media and interaction at the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), an honor society with more than 800,000 members at more than 300 schools, says she and her colleagues agree there's "absolutely a rising trend in alternative spring breaks."
[View a slide show of alternative spring breaks.]
Steve Loflin, founder and CEO of NSCS, says in the early 1990s he had to beg students, who were interested in "spring break destinations that were more tropical and social," to participate in alternative spring break programs that he was organizing as director of campus activities at George Washington University.
High school students increasingly started focusing on community service in the mid-1990s, Loflin notes, and by the mid-2000s, most students arrived on college campuses expecting to find opportunities to serve their communities, he says, to the extent that alternative breaks might not be so alternative anymore.
"College students today categorize community involvement as a personal priority," Loflin says. "Spring break is an opportunity for students, with their friends, to have an experience that accomplishes something that makes a difference, which has evolved to be more important and rewarding than a week of excessive spending and partying."
Cecilia Harriendorf, director of campus ministry at College of Mount St. Vincent (CMSV) in Riverdale, N.Y., agrees.
"Service is a wonderful way for young people to channel their generosity, energy, and creativity while helping to shape our world for the better," she says.
Paola Soler, a senior at CMSV, spent five days on Miami beaches with friends on spring break in 2010. But when a friend told her about alternative breaks—a concept she hadn't known about—the following year, she signed up to go to Hoboken, N.J., for alternative spring break. She stayed at a convent and helped cook and clean at a homeless shelter.
[Learn how to turn community service into college cash.]
Soler, who at the time was on a spiritual journey "trying to find myself and trying to find God," says the timing of her friend's suggestion was very meaningful. "I took it like it was a message from God to me," she says.
Though "résumé building" is one of 13 items listed on Break Away's website, under the heading "Why do students do alternative breaks" Soler says it never occurred to her to mention the experience in her portfolio.
Both Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist based in Washington, D.C., and Mandee Adler, president of the Hollywood-Fla.-based International College Counselors, say students shouldn't sign up for alternative breaks to pad their résumés—at least not if they have ambitions of graduate school.
Adler says there's an "unfortunate myth" circulating amongst high school students that doing community service projects abroad—such as building Haitian schools—is "a magic bullet for college admissions." Not only is she noticing more high school students participating in community service projects, but she's also finding more college students going on alternative breaks. She says college students tend to sign up for alternative breaks more for "a cool opportunity presented by their college" than to improve their graduate school applications.
[Read about five ways to make a jobless summer productive.]
Goodman, who has also noticed more college students going on alternative breaks, says he's sometimes in the ironic position of trying to encourage students to take time off, rather than spending "every waking minute [trying] to do everything they possibly can for their future."
If students still want to participate in an alternative break with the hopes of leveraging it for a future application, Goodman asks them the same questions he raises when they talk about internships or jobs: What skills are they actually learning, and how will those skills help them in their careers?
"Is Harvard Business School going to take you because you spent four days in New Orleans?" he says. "That's unrealistic."
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