March 3, 2008 — Hundreds of University of Virginia students on spring break this week are not just taking it easy or having fun in the sun — not that there’s anything wrong with that. The students participating in the Alternative Spring Break program combine travel to an unfamiliar place, whether it's the Caribbean or five minutes from Grounds, with community service to "change their perspective," as the program's motto says.
This year, about 650 students are spending seven to 10 days in almost 60 worksites in the United States, Central and South America, and Africa, record participation for U.Va., said Abbie Klinghoffer, Alternative Spring Break president and a fourth-year U.Va. American Studies major.
• AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Abbie Klinghoffer narrates slides from various sites.
U.Va.'s Alternative Spring Break program began in 1992 and is similar to the national organization, which encourages thousands of students from universities across the nation to organize their own spring-break service programs. U.Va.'s ASB is one of the largest programs in the country, Klinghoffer said.
The volunteer work challenges students to tackle issues, including homelessness and housing, poverty, children's education and welfare, health and nutrition, and Native American life. Ten groups alone will return to New Orleans and five sites in Mississippi to help repair or rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
ASB has gone through huge growth. In 2003, the program sanctioned three trips, while the 2008 schedule comprises 57 trips.
Each project partners with an on-site nonprofit organization. Service activities range from clearing trails in national parks to working in soup kitchens. One group is resurfacing youth baseball fields in Durham, N.C. Programs in Central and South America include teaching youth about health and hygiene or working with small communities on organic gardening.
One or more U.Va. students become site leaders for each trip. They also arrange for more casual gatherings with families or special activities, such as touring historic places or snorkeling.
The "change your perspective" motto underlies the organization's mission. Although the primary goal is to provide service, another is educating students to examine the privileges of their own lives while also recognizing their place in these larger social and global issues.
A service project now is no longer simply a one-week commitment to volunteering, but has become a year-round experience that emphasizes self-awareness through educational and cultural programs held before and after the projects. Every night during the trip, each group convenes to reflect and discuss their experiences.
Even though students provide an important service for others, the group aims for participants to gain as much as they give on the ASB trip, "whether that is service experience, a strengthened passion for service or an understanding of issues facing less fortunate communities," says the Web site.
• In 2008, ASB will send volunteers back to more than 20 of the same communities in which students worked in 2007.
• Of the 57 projects, 29 are in the U.S. and 28 are in other countries.
• In addition to this week's service, there will be approximately six winter and eight summer trips.
• Two-thirds of the volunteers are second-year students (36.4 percent) and third-year students (28.3 percent). First-year students make up 21.5 percent and fourth-years 12.7 percent.
• Eighty percent of the students are from the College of Arts & Sciences. Students from engineering, education, nursing, commerce and architecture also participate.
• In a recent survey, more than 80 percent of the 300-plus respondents said they are more likely to increase involvement in their service to the Charlottesville and Albemarle community.
• Almost 50 percent of respondents indicated that as a direct result of their experiences with ASB, they are now reconsidering their academic major or career goals.
See www.student.virginia.edu/~altbreak for a list of sites and more information.