Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Alternative spring break programs are growing

Hundreds of U-M students this spring break will trade the beaches of Florida or Mexico for the February chill of New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., or more rural settings.
Some will spend their time off from the University providing community service not necessarily related to their majors, while others will seek new experiences related to their fields of study.

From Feb. 23-27, 575 U-M students — a number that grows each year — will travel to volunteer community service sites with help from SERVE’s Alternative Spring Break program, which started with only a handful of students 19 years ago. SERVE is a program of the Ginsberg Center, and part of the University’s Division of Student Affairs.

Student volunteers with the Ginsberg Center Alternative Spring Break program join local residents traveling to build water stations for Humane Borders in Tucson, Ariz. Students learned about the complexity of border issues and human rights from the experience. (Photo courtesy Ginsberg Center)
The School of Information Alternative Spring Break program offers career-related activities in places like New York City and Chicago, and with government institutions in Washington D.C., where this group of SI graduate students performed their spring break assignments. (Photo courtesy School of Information)

Similarly, the School of Information (SI) Alternative Spring Break program, which started with 11 students in 1999, will this month connect 94 students to volunteer work with institutions including museums, libraries and universities — the types of places SI graduate students will seek careers with upon graduation.

While these are the most prominent U-M volunteer programs dedicated to alternative spring break experiences, other U-M students also pursue internship experiences and privately organized volunteer service during the break.

“When you take part in programs like (SERVE) ASB, you come back with life-changing experiences that will forever shape your outlook on life,” says Jacquelyn Coats, a senior from Inkster, Mich., majoring in women’s studies and communications.

On two separate trips to Chicago, she volunteered at Alternatives, a multi-cultural youth development agency, and the following year at two middle schools. “You want to find a way to have a positive impact on your community, and everything you do in your college career and after is done with this desire in mind until you achieve it. And after that, you keep working at how you can make more positive differences in others lives,” she says.

“It was a great opportunity to try out a career for a very brief amount of time, to see what you think before you commit to a long term job,” says Elaine Engstrom of Perry, Mich., a second year SI graduate student who participated last year in SI’s Alternative Spring Break. Engstrom worked at Columbia University.

“I got to see how they run their libraries,” she says, adding the experience allowed her to evaluate a particular career path without actually moving. “I really liked it but I found it’s not exactly what I like to do, I’m more interested in the technical side of libraries instead of the customer service side.”

Students who participate in alternative spring break activities don’t limit their experience to work. Depending on their commitments, they’re also encouraged to socialize in the evenings and explore what the local culture offers. Last year, Engstrom and some other SI graduate students saw the musical “Rent” and took the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. It’s typical for students to go out to dinner and socialize in the evenings, organizers say.

To join the SI program, students pay a $25 program fee and at their assignment city pay for their own local transportation and meals. Lodging at budget hotels or hostels and transportation from Ann Arbor to their assignment is covered by fund raising and alumni contributions.

The SERVE program asks students to pay a $125 program fee. Students who qualify for financial aid may apply for a fee waiver, provided by an arrangement with an outside donor. In addition to the participant fee, each group raises funds for program and trip expenses.

Student volunteers to SERVE begin training in the fall. “They should know what the community partner expects of them,” says Tracy Welch, SERVE co-director. “We cover everything from what kind of clothing they should be wearing to the mission and goals of the partner organization. They should know something about the local culture and politics, and ground themselves in what’s going on.”

SERVE volunteers are asked to choose among 10 issue categories, to determine which organizations they’ll work with. Those categories include environment; urban poverty; issues within the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender community; domestic violence; and more. SERVE assignments have included delivering meals to AIDS patients in New York City, repairing homes damaged in natural disasters, engaging with urban youth in Chicago, working with the Sioux nation in South Dakota, learning about sustainable agriculture in Texas and working with a community non-violence program in Detroit.

Teams of SERVE students coordinated by student leaders typically take University vans to assignments, some in rural areas. There are 35 assignment areas this spring.

“I think it’s really helpful for students to clarify their own value system and how they fit into the world, it’s really great to see the learning that can happen,” Welch says.

“What’s most special about it in my mind is the changes I see students go through because of the experience. I hear students say it changed their lives, their perspective.”

Kelly Kowatch, SI career counselor who helps direct that school’s Alternative Spring Break program, says the program has developed relationships with a range of institutions including the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Judy Lawson, SI director of student affairs, says the graduate students will be performing 3,600 hours of volunteer service. “That means 26 percent of our master’s students will be involved in a single year — amazing given how busy and committed they are otherwise as professional school students,” she says.

“Practical engagement is central to our school’s mission, and this program was an outgrowth of that focus. The program has become a signature experience for our master’s students and has led to summer internships and job offers. These students serve as ambassadors of SI and the University of Michigan, and the response from the host organizations has been overwhelmingly positive.”