Students get involved in the community with alternative break trips

March 12, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Instead of sitting on a beach in Cancun or Florida or watching Netflix at home, more than 100 Penn State University Park students spent their spring break traveling throughout the country helping others on Alternative Spring Break program trips. Students got their hands dirty working in urban gardens, repairing low-income homes, removing debris from storms, organizing donated goods, cooking meals, cleaning up rivers, tutoring in schools, and interacting with people in a community different than their own.

Alternative break trips give students the opportunity to engage with a community surrounding a specific social-justice topic through meaningful direct service. The mission of the program is to promote active citizenship through education, direct community engagement, and reflection. Penn State Alternative Breaks, which is part of Student Activities in Penn State Student Affairs, hosts fall, winter and spring break trips. The program has 17 planned trips for 2017-18. The program is coordinated by Kelli Dowd, program coordinator for service and leadership in the Office of Student Activities as well as a board of five students who manage all trip details including training, recruiting a diverse group of participants, and developing community partnerships to create strong learning experiences. Each trip has two student site leaders who train and prepare all semester to facilitate all day-to-day logistics, education and reflection, as well as one or two faculty or staff learning partners.

“The experiences students have on these trips have been called eye-opening and life-changing,” Dowd said. They give students hands-on experience and exposure to people and social justice issues in communities different than those they were raised in or that of the State College community.”

During the fall semester, 65 students went to New York City to work with youth development in schools with junior achievement, disaster relief from Hurricane Sandy, and multiple organizations looking at urban poverty in the LGBTQ community. Students also went to Maryland to work with Little Friends for Peace around refugee resettlement and practicing peace; New Jersey to work with the Center for Environmental Transformation around issues of sustainability and community development; and Washington, D.C., to work with multiple organizations around homelessness and food insecurity.

Over the winter break, two student groups traveled south. One group traveled to Selma, Alabama, to work with the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation around race relations. Students on this trip were able to go to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, engage with the local community around voting, and spent time listening to oral stories from foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in order to capture their stories for the organization to keep as historical documents. The second winter-break trip was focused on disaster relief from Hurricane Harvey with an organization called All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response in Aransas Pass, Texas.

This year’s spring break trip represented the largest group of alternative break participants in the past 11 years. The nine trips took students to Baltimore, Maryland, to work with teachers and students at Pimlico School, while looking at what education access means in Baltimore City; rural Virginia to repair low-income homes with Appalachia Service Project; Ohio to focus on community development and urban renewal with the Cleveland Leadership Center; and to Asheville, North Carolina, to focus on environmental justice. Students also traveled to Detroit, Michigan, to work with multiple organizations around issues of urban poverty after an economic crisis; Atlanta, Georgia, to work with refugee resettlement with the International Rescue Committee; Wilmington, North Carolina, to work with an organization called Vigilant Hope surrounding issues of hunger and homelessness; and Allentown to work with LGBTQ Youth Outreach.

The Alternative Breaks program also coordinated a disaster-relief trip to Beaumont, Texas, with six Penn State campuses, including Penn State Behrend, Penn State Harrisburg, Penn State Worthington-Scranton, Penn State York, and Penn State Greater Allegheny.

“The experiences students have on alternative breaks give them a chance to practice what they are learning in the classroom and to develop a commitment to staying involved in the community,” said Dowd. “Penn Stater’s have the power to make a lot of change locally, nationally, and globally, and Penn State Alternative Breaks is one program harnessing that ‘We Are’ power.”

Follow Penn State Alternative Breaks on social media #PSUASB18 on Instagram @psualtbreaks and Facebook @Penn State Alternative Breaks, and visit the Alternative Breaks website for more information and to get involved.

Last Updated March 12, 2018