National News

Alternative Spring Breaks Provide Life Lessons for College Students

A group of Fordham University students are pictured during their March 11-18, 2023 outreach project in Puebla, Mexico. (Photo courtesy Fordham University)

WASHINGTON — Spring break, an annual rite of passage for many college students, was back in full force this year, with the pandemic and its travel restrictions pretty much in the rearview mirror.

But even though a lot of college students hit the Florida, Texas, and Mexico beaches, certainly not all of them did. In fact, many embraced alternative spring breaks — a chance to get involved in service work or social justice issues in another location. 

“It was heartbreaking for everybody,” when these projects had to stop in the height of the pandemic, said Julie Gafney, executive director of The Center for Community Engaged Learning at New York’s Fordham University and the university’s vice president of strategic mission initiatives.

Fordham, like several other universities, hosted local service projects in 2021, after canceling such trips the previous year.

Currently, the university hosts three global outreach projects a year — one-to-two-week trips during the summer and in the winter and spring breaks.

This past March, students in groups of 12 traveled to Puerto Rico, North Carolina, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and London. Gafney told The Tablet that these projects are a chance for students to address climate and environmental justice issues and advance human rights among displaced and migrant populations.

In other words, these students aren’t just doing traditional service work, but learning about how communities in other parts of the world are tackling big issues.

“If they can lend a hand, fantastic,” said Gafney, about the students, stressing that they are primarily learning from the community they are visiting and then taking that back for them to work in their own community in the Bronx.

The experience is not just random either; the students meet for 10 weeks before the trip they are scheduled to participate in. Gafney said they work on “building a community before they go.” She added that for many of them that is a powerful part of the experience, and they keep up with those they joined on these outreach projects for years afterward.

When asked what the students typically gain from this experience, she said it is different for everyone, but most talk about the “moments of encounter” during the trip, such as talking on long bus rides with each other or sitting with a college student from another country and talking about the work they’re involved in. 

She said the experience often does more than just change a student’s immediate outlook, but can also lead to future paths of work that in some way take up social justice issues. 

Across the country, Maria Determan, who graduated last year from the College of St. Benedict, in St. Joseph, Minnesota, said her alternative spring break experience definitely changed her path after college.

In an article on the university’s website, she said taking part in the college’s spring break project was so rewarding it helped influence her decision to take a gap year after graduating to join the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers.

“I’ve wanted to do a year of volunteering for a long time,” she said. “I think it’s a cool opportunity to be able to give back. I’ve been on the receiving end of everything my whole life.” 

Determan added: “It’s one thing to ‘talk the talk’ about service and justice. It’s a completely different thing to take a year of your life and dedicate it to walking the walk.”

The recent college graduate is so convinced this kind of immersion experience is helpful that she believes it should be part of a college requirement, noting that this “intentional break” — from the routine and even the direction one might be thinking of heading in the future — “shifts everything.”