Free time is at a premium for college students. Spring break is especially valuable, as it is a chance to unwind or get wild. But for some, it’s a chance to give oneself to something greater. Those students are probably going on Alternative Break.
Alternative Break (AB), also known as Jag Break, is a service-learning program from Leadership Development and Civic Engagement at IUPUI. During both the fall and spring breaks, students take trips to other cities to perform community service in relation to a specific social issue.
Alternative Spring Break (ASB) is the centerpiece of the AB program. In spring 2018, several groups of a dozen or more random students will drive upwards of 12 hours to reach an unspecified location. When they arrive, they will experience four days of intense community service and self-reflection, plus one day to explore the area they’re in.
Applications for ASB are closed, but those who have made the deadline need not fear. Dubbed “The Sorting Hat,” the Selection Team scours every application they receive in first-come order. Students are assigned groups based on their social justice interests, and are unaware of their destination until the last minute so they come to ASB for the service work, not a vacation.
Previous issues include environmental sustainability, mental health education, and systemic racism with a focus on gentrification. Pairs of student leaders study where these issues are the most prevalent and begin planning the previous summer.
“We don’t ever want to pick an area where the social issue is irrelevant,” Melissa Cardenas, a senior, third-year participant and trip leader, said. Because AB students are outsiders, there is an emphasis on partnership with local groups to prevent any kind of savior-mentality.
Most of the work throughout the year is logistical--making dozens of phone calls to churches and recruiting IUPUI students--and it’s almost all handled by student leaders. They earn scholarships from the Sam H. Jones program for their efforts, but some student leaders wish for more AB funds.
“I just wish they had more funding,” Bridget Barbara, a former trip leader and recent IUPUI graduate, said. “It’s such a good program and there’s so much that can be done with it, but having been in it, I know that like the advisors are just at their capacity.”
Because students only pay $100 to participate (financial waivers are available), the budgets for these trips are tight. Students have $6 a day for food, often sleep on church floors, or even live off the grid entirely, depending on the service project. Manual labor is almost guaranteed.
Despite all the planning and pre-ASB group meetings, sometimes things just go wrong. On a previous trip, Cardenas’ group had hot showers because church members opened their bathrooms to them. The other option was a beach shower in 40-degree weather.
“You gotta step out of your comfort zone for these trips, because we aren't staying in five-star hotels with your best friends,” she said. “It’s unknowns all around.”
Living and working with strangers in a different location can be the hardest part. Cold feet can happen. But groups tend to warm up to each other by the sixth hour of driving. Even trip leaders feel pressure about meeting other students’ expectations.
“I don’t know everything,” Mariana Lagunas, a junior and a trip leader, said. “I know my story and I can share what I have read and studied, but at the end of the day you learn alongside each other.”
At the end of each volunteering day, after a group or community meal, students will reflect on and discuss the work they have done. Students digest the difficult realities that individuals face every day and ponder how they themselves can challenge injustice when ASB is over.
Hard conversations about problems too big for these groups to solve happen frequently.
“We joke about it. We say, ‘if you don’t feel shitty at the end of a strong conversation about racism, then you’re doing it wrong,’” Lagunas said. “It’s supposed to make you feel like, ‘wow there’s not much I can do, but I’m gonna do what I can. I’m going to push through it. I’m going to change a little to make a big impact.’”
But the service learning does not end here. Students later attend Reorientation, a smaller service project in Indianapolis that relates to their chosen social issue. This is to keep them engaged with these social issues and carry what they’ve learned further in life, as the injustice does not end just because spring break is over.
“There is nothing else like it. Like, period. End of story. You will never experience something similar,” Barbara said. “I’ve done Jagathon, I've done Relay for Life, volunteered with other organizations, and I care about that stuff and I get it, but you just don’t get immersed like you do with alternative break. It’s an experience that stays with you.”