McLean, VA (Gannett News)
While thousands of college students are flocking this spring to the likes of Cancun and Fort Lauderdale, Wartburg College senior Mycala Briggs spent a week picking up 8-year-old trash from a wetland in New Orleans.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina, she had wanted to help with disaster relief, and when she found out two years ago that her school offered a chance to clean up the Lower Ninth Ward over spring break, she said, "there wasn't much of a decision to make."
Seeing the storm's lingering devastation during two spring breaks and helping with projects such as building a nursery and dry-walling a church have proved life-changing. Briggs, 21, plans to move to New Orleans next fall and get a master's in social work at Tulane University.
Of all the spring break destinations drawing college students this month, the storm-battered parts of the Gulf and the East coasts, flood-ravaged northern Minnesota and landlocked Des Moines probably aren't the first to come to mind for many coeds. But a small and growing number of students are opting to devote their free weeks to community service and learning rather than partying in the tropics.
"I've been teasing that we're going to the beach in Des Moines," said Linda McGuire, associate dean at the University of Iowa College of Law. Her school is offering a trip later this month to Iowa's capital, where 12 students will be paired with attorneys and legislators.
According to Break Away, an organization that helps schools develop such trips, more than 72,000 students went on alternative spring breaks in 2010, an average of 4 percent of students at each participating school. The number of students participating in alternative breaks has risen steadily over the past two decades, particularly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Alternative spring breaks give service-minded students a chance to give back; take students out of the comforts of campus and place them into real-world work and life situations; and are often hundreds of dollars cheaper than a stay at a resort for a week.
Above all, the popularity of alternative spring breaks is helping to redefine a generation, said Shannon Morrissey, Break Away's programs director.
"There's a lot of buzz around the millennial generation, about the apathy or the focus on the 'me' generation," Morrissey said. "But we see that students are interested in their role in broader social issues and seeing how they can use spring break to try to make a difference."
Trips burst 'bubble' of life at college
The typical participant is socially minded, but can be studying any major or discipline, program administrators say. At Iowa State University, Coordinator of Leadership and Service Kevin Merrill said many seniors decided to participate this year in service trips to Georgia, South Carolina, Colorado and Virginia.
"For some seniors, they say, 'I've done the fun spring breaks, and now I want to do something meaningful,'" Merrill said.
Iowa Campus Compact, an association of universities committed to community service, estimates that 80 percent of its 19 member institutions offer alternative spring breaks, with more trips every year.
"Certainly more students are still going to Panama Beach than are doing these types of trips," said Emily Shields, the group's executive director. "But we are encouraged that it's increasing."
Wartburg College began its alternative break program with one trip in 1994. On 11 trips this spring, 115 students built houses in San Antonio, provided flood recovery in northern Minnesota and maintained trails in a Virginia state park.
About 6.5 percent of Wartburg's student body participates in alternative spring breaks, one of the highest rates in the country.
Briggs said the New Orleans trip was an opportunity to burst the so-called "Wartburg bubble" that protects students from the outside world.
"It's definitely eye-opening," she said. She wasn't missing out on the traditional spring break experience, either, she said. "New Orleans culture in itself is kind of like a party. I just don't have the alcohol -- or the party."
Benett Mabee, a junior biology major at Northwestern College, spent his spring break doing manual labor for a ministry in Jackson, Miss. It was his second time, and during his first trip there last year, he realized he, too, had been living in a bubble, in northwest Iowa.
"It helped me see how for granted I take being in the majority," he said. Staying and working in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Jackson "helped me get better perspective, to some degree, on what minorities experience when they come to the Midwest."
Local organizations receive help, too
Local organizations that partner with school groups also feel the impact. This week, Boston University students are spending spring break volunteering at Iowa Homeless Youth Centers in Des Moines. The group is painting, preparing and serving food, and spending time with the organization's youth residents, ages 16 to 25.
"Having the opportunity to interact with peers who have similar educational and employment goals, and are actually accomplishing them, it lends a spirit of hope" to Iowa Homeless' clients, said development director Rhonda Clark-Leyda. The visitors from Boston University and another group from Simpson College "bring a jolt of energy into the organization."
Jen Eliezer, a student leader of the trip, said Des Moines was one of her top choices for spring break, even though its March weather isn't much better than Boston's.
It is her first time in the Midwest.
"I don't know what to expect," she said as she prepared to head to Des Moines. "Not only making an impact, but also enjoying a new experience, a new town, a place I've never been."
While some schools also offer community service programs close to home, many administrators say leaving campus -- and Iowa -- is integral to the experience.
"We could go next door to Lutheran Services in Iowa," said Michele Fairbairn, an education professor at Drake University and a coordinator of an annual spring break service trip to an elementary school in Belize.
"But one of the powerful things is being removed from your comfort zone in every way, and then being stuck together to have those conversations."
Both students and faculty say the act of travel helps groups bond in a way they wouldn't on campus.
"When you are on an old rickety bus and you're bouncing for an hour and a half, you get to know each other really well," said Sally Beisser, also a professor of education and co-coordinator of Drake's Belize trip.