diversity digest
Winter 01
Student Experience
next story
previous story
home
previous issue
archives
search
institution profiles
feedback
recommended resources
diversity web

Spring Break 2002: What Are Your Students Doing?
By Amanda Lepof, Program Assistant, AAC&U


PANAMA CITY, CANCUN, JAMAICA, AND THE BAHAMAS ALL RANK AMONG THE HOT SPRING BREAK DESTINATIONS FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS. BUT WHAT ABOUT WORKING WITH HIV/AIDS PATIENTS IN NEW YORK, ASSISTING IN A HOMELESS SHELTER IN WASHINGTON, DC, OR WORKING WITH NATIVE AMERICANS IN NORTH CAROLINA? MORE AND MORE COLLEGE STUDENTS NOW PARTICIPATE IN ALTERNATIVE SPRING BREAK PROGRAMS INSTEAD OF RELAXING IN THE CARIBBEAN. DURING AN ALTERNATIVE BREAK, STUDENTS SPEND A WEEK PERFORMING DIRECT COMMUNITY SERVICE, WHILE LEARNING ABOUT SOCIAL ISSUES, AND, ORGANIZERS HOPE, LEARNING TO MAKE THE COMMUNITY A PRIORITY. FOR STUDENTS PARTICIPATING IN AN ALTERNATIVE BREAK, THERE IS NO TIME FOR LOUNGING ON THE BEACH AND DRINKING MARGARITAS. THE BREAKS HAVE A STRICT NO ALCOHOL/NO DRUGS POLICY, AND STUDENTS SPEND ALL DAY WORKING ON SITE AND ENGAGING IN GROUP AND INDIVIDUAL REFLECTION DURING SOME OF THEIR EVENING HOURS.

As students return to campus following their alternative spring break, they feel a range of emotions from exhilaration to exhaustion and from passionate to overwhelmed. And they may experience many more feelings from having all the answers to having a lot of questions about their role in the community.

How Alternative Breaks Work

Break Away is the recognized national leader, trainer, and clearinghouse of materials regarding alternative breaks. Two Vanderbilt University undergraduate students, who felt a national resource was needed to coordinate efforts of college students building more involved communities, founded Break Away in 1991. In December 1999, Break Away's office moved from Vanderbilt in Nashville to Florida, where it incorporated as a 501c(3). Now Vanderbilt and about 60 other schools are Break Away chapters, meaning that they follow Break Away's guidelines for building alternative break programs. Break Away statistics indicate that over 5000 students participated in alternative spring breaks through Break Away chapter schools this year.

Learning occurs in the classroom,
in student living situations, and perhaps most powerfully, it occurs when students are able to see firsthand the connections between their classroom instruction and
their real world experiences.


Typically alternative breaks are coordinated by the college or university volunteer or service learning center and are led by students. Through an application and interview process, site leaders then choose members of their alternative break team. The volunteer center generally organizes participant wide training and site orientation. Site leaders organize bonding and team building opportunities for their specific team. Teams try to become as informed as possible about the population with which they will work before embarking on their breaks.

At George Mason University, in Fairfax, VA, a Break Away chapter school, students must participate in an all day pre-break retreat as well as a post-break reflection and celebration. Organized by the Center for Service & Leadership, the pre-break retreat orients students to their site and their other team members. Team leaders then organize separate meetings with their team throughout the months preceding the break. During the post-break celebration students share photos and stories from their experiences, and tackle questions like, "so what?" and "what's next?". Upon returning to campus students struggle to balance academics, co-curricular activities, and social engagements with community service. The pull of competing interests sometimes makes it difficult to integrate the great service learning experience they just had into their lives on a more regular basis.

Service Learning

Many schools have adopted an alternative spring break program, however very few schools award service learning credit for the experience. Alternative breaks tend to be exceptional service learning experiences. They involve education and training, an intense period of direct service, and guided reflection. The student site leader gains valuable leadership skills, and all participants learn about group dynamics and communication. Service learning experiences must be carefully crafted and well facilitated to enhance students' learning experiences and to encourage student engagement.

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, bucks the national trend by offering a one credit-hour for their service learning experience. UNC, Chapel Hill currently offers three different alternative spring break experiences, all within the state of North Carolina, and has about 30 student participants. Mary Morrison, Director of UNC's APPLES Service Learning Program, says, "As a public, state funded university, we have a commitment to give back to our state. Our alternative breaks are solely within North Carolina, but we service communities that we couldn't otherwise reach during the semester." The course consists of group discussions and preparation for entering the service community, as well as the integration of volunteer experience with academic theory.

At George Mason University, students may earn one service learning credit for their break. In addition to the pre-trip retreat and post-trip reflection, students wishing to receive credit must write reflective journals and prepare a learning portfolio. Heather Hare, Assistant Director of the Center for Service & Leadership at George Mason says only about 1/3 of students participate in their alternative break for credit. "The majority of the students want to do the break for the experience." All students, whether or not they complete the break for credit, must attend the pre and post break events and participate in team building activities before the break.

Civic Engagement/Building Active Citizenship

"I'm a middle class white woman who always had enough, and suddenly I saw kids who couldn't even afford to buy paper for school," Erin Lasky, a junior at George Mason University commented about her eye-opening alternative spring break project with the National School and Community Corps in Philadelphia, PA. Lasky's alternative spring break experience alerted her to the privileges and opportunities with which her life had been filled. During Lasky's break she tutored junior high school special needs students and co-presented informal seminars about attending college to eighth graders in the center's after-school program. Lasky said the kids couldn't stop asking questions about going to college. They were so excited to meet college students and to hear, possibly for the first time, that college was a possibility for them as well. Break Away's philosophy is that the intensity of the student experience during an alternative break increases the likelihood that students will actively seek to give back to their communities throughout their lifetimes.

WHAT NEXT?

Colleges and universities strive to help students become more informed, responsible, and civic- minded individuals. Learning occurs in the classroom, in student living situations, and perhaps most powerfully, it occurs when students are able to see firsthand the connections between their classroom instruction and their real world experiences. Learning also occurs when students see what influence they can have in the community, witness how their privilege and how their experiences have shaped their lives, and broaden their views because they have seen how the world looks from someone else's view.

Well-crafted service learning opportunities encourage these connections. Take a moment to ask your students what they did over spring break, and you will likely be surprised by some of what you hear. Alternative breaks foster the sense of civic responsibility that many institutions seek to instill in their students, and students lives will never be the same because of it.

For more information on Break Away, the national organization that sets standards and provides guidelines for organizing alternative breaks, visit http://www.alternativebreaks.org.


back to top