Alternative Breaks seeks faculty, staff and grad students for Learning Partners

November 04, 2019

Penn State Alternative Breaks, a program offered by the Office of Student Activities, provides a variety of opportunities for students to learn more about themselves, others, and the world around them through service. Programs include trips throughout the year, which take place over university breaks: Fall Alternative Breaks (Thanksgiving break), Alternative Winter Breaks, and Alternative Spring Breaks. In addition, fall and spring service weekend trips have been added. Each program is designed to encourage personal growth, promote civic engagement, and enrich the lives of participants by immersing them in a new community around issues of social justice.

With the expansion of Alternative Break trips, the Office of Student Activities, a unit of Penn State Student Affairs, is seeking additional Learning Partners to accompany students on these exciting and interactive learning experiences. Each Alternative Break trip has one to two faculty or staff persons who attend the trip with them as a Learning Partner. These partnerships are essential to providing strong and safe learning opportunities for students. Learning Partners attend the trip at no cost and participate in daily service, education, and reflection activities. Other duties during the trip include:

  • Driving a University-owned 15 passenger van or mini-van
  • Signing out a University purchasing card for food and activities during the trip
  • Supporting student Site Leaders with conflict resolution and difficult conversations
  • Sharing any social justice knowledge about the topic students are working with
  • Assisting in any emergency situations and assessing risk
  • Having fun with students while learning and engaging in the community!

Penn State Alternative Breaks offers three different perspectives from past Learning Partners: a faculty member, a staff member and a graduate student.

The faculty perspective

Borja Gutiérrez, assistant teaching professor of Spanish, became involved with Alternative Breaks because it was a great opportunity to connect with students outside of the classroom, in a setting conducive to more authentic dialogue around social justice issues facing our country. These trips serve as excellent vehicles for students to learn more about poverty, racial inequities, our national housing crisis, gentrification, amongst other grave issues we face today. The students’ personal stories and their investment in the service and daily reflections inspired Gutiérrez to attend three trips as a Learning Partner in the past and is looking forward to future trips in spring 2020.

Gutiérrez elected to become a Learning Partner to help students get engaged in and excited about service learning and to increase their knowledge about current societal inequities, providing them through both the opportunity to become aware of their own agency in making social change happen.

“All faculty and staff, if possible, should take part in one of these experiences if they wish to connect with students in a totally different way than how we do so in our daily interactions with them on campus. It is a unique opportunity to share with students and to learn from them as well,” said Gutiérrez

The staff perspective

Kyle Kowal, residence life coordinator, studied leadership development but says you never stop learning. Kowal enjoys the ongoing discovery and education while being a global citizen. He enjoys the mutual respect and sharing of knowledge with students while serving as a Learning Partner.

“It’s not about the volunteerism,” said Kowal. “It’s about the shared experiences, and the opportunity for continued learning.”

Penn State students move building materials during an alternative break trip

Penn State students move building materials during an alternative break trip

IMAGE: Kyle Kowal

Residence life staff go through extensive training in crisis management and dealing with the variety of life struggles facing many students today. Residence life background aside, Student Activities provided Kowal with the necessary tools and training to prepare him for his many service trips through an orientation process. Additionally, someone from Student Activities was always on standby to answer Kowal’s call, if needed.

Over the past four years, Kowal has been a Learning Partner on five trips and plans to continue serving in this role. Kowal had the unique experience of returning to North Carolina a second year. It was interesting to meet these people and then be reintroduced to them a year later, he said. He was able to see first-hand how his service had an impact on them over the course of that year.

Kowal encourages other staff members to go with an open mind, listen, and learn.

“You are not just a driver. Engage with students, be positive, and be willing to learn from your students. They will surprise you.”

The graduate student perspective

Ishbel Correa Narvaez, graduate assistant and program coordinator for the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, participated in alternative break trips at her undergraduate alma mater. These opportunities gave her the potential to make an impact on those communities she visited. But as a graduate student pursuing her degree in higher education, she is focusing her studies on multicultural affairs and leadership development. As a Learning Partner, she recognizes the significance of hands-on learning opportunities toward these areas of study. As a new professional in Student Affairs, Narvaez says it’s great to meet and interact with students you would not normally have contact with on a daily basis.

She wants others to know they are not going on the trips as a chaperone or just a driver. Learning Partners go to participate and engage with students, and Narvaez recommends going with an open mind.

Penn State students dig dirt during an alternative break trip

Penn State students dig dirt during an alternative break trip

IMAGE: Kyle Kowal

Narvaez enjoys building connections with students as well as participating in the service opportunities and the reflection that follows. Her advice is to go with the flow, shifting the mindset from chaperone to more of a supportive role.

“Alternative Breaks provides great educational moments, regardless of topic. Use this opportunity to interact with students you may not normally connect with otherwise. It is a wonderful opportunity to support out of classroom learning and personal growth,” Narvaez said.

If Penn State faculty, staff or graduate students are interested in learning more about, or becoming a Learning Partner with Alternative Breaks, contact Heather Veale, program coordinator, service and leadership in the Office of Student Activities.

Last Updated November 04, 2019