Alternative Spring Break Changes Students' Perspectives to Become Citizens of the Planet

March 21, 2008 — An engineering student improves children's health in Belize by identifying and helping to eliminate the bacteria in the water supply that has been causing diarrhea. An English major and future teacher monitors amphibian populations and digs into gardening with the Portland Parks and Recreation Service in Oregon.

Participants in the University of Virginia's chapter of Alternative Spring Break, an all-student volunteer organization, not only fulfilled its motto, "Change Your Perspective," but also changed others' lives. Over the University's March 1-9 spring break, U.Va. students changed their perspectives in Belize, Oregon, Peru, West Virginia and in almost 60 other places south and north of the Grounds, and in the process became citizens of the planet.

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Abbie Klinghoffer narrates slides from various sites.

With an increase of 100 students signing up this year, Alternative Spring Break added 14 more volunteer projects. That came on top of last year's massive growth; between 2006 and 2007, the number of students signing up more than doubled, from 238 to 550.

The Alternative Spring Break program will hold a Service-Learning Symposium on Monday, March 24, from 6 to 8 p.m., in the Harrison/Small Auditorium in the Special Collections Library. At the symposium, students will share their research through poster presentations and also formal oral presentations.
Ethan Carroll changed his perspective in La Gracia, Belize, earning real-life experience in how to tackle a community problem and how long it takes to make solutions work. He and his fellow site leader, third-year student Aksh Patel, organized a new water project with a nongovernmental organization in the Central American country.

Carroll, Patel and fellow student Kate Villars worked with graduate civil engineering students and civil engineering professor James Smith to plan their project, set up realistic goals and formulate a long-term vision for sustainable development.

"Our group did some research into the social, economic and cultural conditions of Belize, but nothing could prepare us for what we learned through firsthand experience," Carroll said. The experience included group members staying in homes with families.

"The children of La Gracia have diarrhea literally every day," he said. Working with Josue Ake at the University of Belize, U.Va. student volunteers were able to identify the presence of coliform bacteria in the village's well water and in its rainwater collection tank. The tank water also contained parasites and worms, and the tank itself was painted with toxic paint.

"By cleaning the roof and gutter, as well as re-hanging the gutter to eliminate pools of stagnant water, and then buying the school a new plastic tank, we most likely made huge steps in addressing the issue of daily diarrhea," said Carroll, who added that he has taken steps to continue the project with further water testing and follow-up on the success of addressing the rainwater collection facility.

Each Alternative Spring Break group sets aside time every evening to hold a "Reflections" session. That activity was "particularly effective in maintaining a proactive goal and insuring the continual engagement of all trip participants," Carroll said. "Additionally, by reevaluating our service every day, we were able to make sure that our service was 100 percent directed at legitimate community needs."

It is inspiring, he said, to see just how much of a difference the experience made to the student volunteers.

"Several of my participants have expressed interest in returning to Belize. Two want to lead an ASB trip back to La Gracia; another wants to coordinate with Engineering Students Without Borders in building composting toilets near the town's groundwater source; another wants to coordinate with Nursing Students Without Borders in addressing health concerns in the area; and, perhaps most inspiring to me, one of my participants is planning on staying in La Gracia this summer, doing research on second-language acquisition and teaching adults English during night classes."

In past years, Abbie Klinghoffer, Alternative Spring Break president and a fourth-year American Studies major, spent two spring break weeks tutoring elementary school students in Jamaica and one working in a reading program in Uruguay. This year she changed her perspective again by learning from students in the Southern Appalachian Labor School in Page, W.Va. The students, high-school dropouts, are learning the construction trade. The same age as the college students, the construction workers were the ones teaching the volunteers as they spruced up the house of a widow whose husband died of black lung disease.

The students also accompanied housing organizations on a trip to the capital city to meet with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, tutored children in an after-school program and fed them dinner. They learned about Appalachian culture and listened to bluegrass music.

Klinghoffer said the greatest part of Alternative Spring Break is that it introduces students to issues and communities they might not otherwise get to know. Plus, the program returns to the same places, if possible, to cultivate the relationships created along with the education and physical labor. Alternative Spring Break has succeeded in continuing about 20 of the 44 programs.

"The trip shows in tangible ways how [U.Va. students] can apply what they're learning or see the real world beyond the classroom," Klinghoffer said.

Jessalyn Elliott, a fourth-year English major, said her trip to Portland, Ore. "truly embodied part of Alternative Spring Break's mission statement, 'Service to and education about global communities.' The service that we did each day was quantifiable — that is, we could see the work that we had done, whether it was reorganizing part of a warehouse or landscaping. But supplemented by these service projects was the education, the learning that we were doing, the 'why?' of the service project."

Elliott, who will go into secondary English education in the Curry School/Arts & Sciences BA/MT Program, is also minoring in French and said she didn't have time to take classes in other fields. Alternative Spring Break allowed her "to supplement my education at U.Va. with real-life examples of what sustainability looks like in action."

The group's work included outreach to a local elementary school's math/science fair by assisting with presentations, checking amphibian population patterns in a nearby wildlife refuge and working at a local center that collects and re-sells used or leftover building materials.

Participating in Alternative Spring Break since her first year, Elliott said the theme of this trip was sustainability, as it relates not only to environmental conservation, but also to communities.
"I think that this sort of experiential education is essential to my future as a citizen," she said.
Elliott's words capture the program's benefit of providing students opportunities to become citizens of the planet, participants in a larger mission.