Since the late 1980s, college students across the country have been opting out of the traditional festivities that spring break has to offer in favor of volunteer service trips. This movement, appropriately deemed Alternative Break, has since grown to encompass any and all academic breaks including spring, fall, weekend and summer breaks focusing on social issues ranging anywhere from poverty to environmental justice. Alternative Breaks challenge students to think critically and react to problems faced by members of their communities. Immersion in diverse environments enables participants to experience, discuss and understand social issues. The intensity of the experience increases the likelihood that participants will integrate the lessons they learn into their day-to-day life following their trip.
But what would Alternative Break be without its fearless student leaders? Each trip is lead by two students who have applied to work with a specific social issue. On paper, being a site leader involves a lot of pre-departure planning. However, after sitting down with several site leaders, it is clear how much actually goes into it all. When asked what qualities are required to be a site leader, Emma Denley, a sophomore who led a female empowerment trip to Miami this spring break responded “visionary.” She continued, “You need to have a vision and an expectation, but you also have to be flexible. You have to understand that when planning a trip, it’s important to have those visions and expectations, to set your participants’ expectations, but when actually on the trip, you have to be able to roll with the punches when community partners cancel. When you’re planning an AB trip, have the heart of a planner and leader, but when you’re doing it, have the heart of a learner. Present participants with questions; learn from them, rather than try to teach.”
Nicole Fernandez, a junior who led a spring break trip this year focusing on Indigenous rights, stated that when she was going into being a site leader, she had heard that it was “going to be like taking another class based on how much time and work goes into planning an AB trip.” So why lead an Alternative Break trip, besides the incredible leadership development? According to Bri Stepney, a junior who led a healthcare-focused trip to Antigua, Guatamala and will be leading a human trafficking trip in April, explained, “Site leaders take time all year long so that they can educate their fellow students about social issues they’re passionate about. We, as site leaders, spread the knowledge so that then participants can go spread that same knowledge until we have a well-informed population on social issues.”
It is this ripple effect that Alternative Break seeks. Admittedly, there are challenges that come with leading your peers. Maggie Szeman, Assistant Director of Civic Engagement, stated, “That’s definitely been the biggest challenge that’s emerged for site leaders. Alternative Break definitely defines leadership as a group process. We don’t buy into this hierarchical structure. However, at some point, there are certain standards, certain values, certain expectations to which everyone has to hold each other accountable.”
On the subject of this leadership, Fernandez asserted that “Growing up, you have a certain idea of what leadership looks like. There isn’t just one type of leader; there are many different types of leadership. My site leaders challenged us, but at the same time they encouraged us. I feel like the personal connections they formed with the participants and with each other helped to create a baseline for what I have now come to understand leadership as.” It is important to note here that when all quoted site leaders were asked why they decided to apply to be a site leader, each one disclosed that it was because of their relationship with and admiration for their previous site leaders.
Education, orientation, and training are all conducted before embarking on the Alternative Break journey. “After my first AB trip, I loved the idea of not just sending people out and saying, ‘go volunteer here,’” Stepney noted. “We learn about the social issue.” Szeman commented on this pre-trip education, “I think what we emphasize in all our meetings and pre-departure education is that going on a trip for four days or a week doesn’t solve the ‘problem’ or fix the issue. The way that we can truly begin to imagine eradicating these problems is by educating ourselves and committing ourselves to a more sustainable form of advocacy. So I think for us as Alternative Break, really emphasizing education is what we hope people will do with these issues after they are done with their Alternative Break experiences. It’s about being a critical consumer of information, about being an active member of your community. It’s about questioning the way you’re impacting things, whether recognizing that impact comes naturally or not. We’re all affecting something around us whether we want to embrace that impact or not. That’s what the education is. This is real, these things are real, let’s embrace it, let’s lean into that discomfort a little bit.” Katie Friedman, senior leader of the Indigenous Rights trip, stated, “You really want everyone to walk away with an idea of why active citizenship and social justice is important.”
Alternative Break has become a home for so many participants and site leaders. However, according to Szeman, “we want you to walk away feeling a little confused, a little uncomfortable and a little rocked. That discomfort is where real change begins, both within yourself and within your environment and your community.”
Applications for Fall Break site leader positions and Alternative Break Leadership Board are available online April 3rd.