As the Alternative Spring Break program approaches its 11th year on campus, a new vision and mission have sharpened its focus on diversity and social justice.

The Alternative Breaks program started in 2000 with only stateside Spring Break trips and only about 40 students participating. Three years ago, international Alternative Winter Break was added. A third component, Club AB, provides local service opportunities and a weekend service project trip. The trips are student-led and supported by the Dean of Students Office through its Leadership and Service unit. Since the program’s inception, there have been over 1,000 student experiences and 80 faculty, staff and graduate students who have participated in the trips as advisors. The number of students participating has increased yearly, with this year’s total at 225 students.

“Students can participate more than once, and many do,” said Harriett Steinbach, senior specialist and full-time staff advisor of the Alternative Breaks program.

This year, as Steinbach and the Alternative Breaks executive board embarked on a strategic planning process, they decided that the rapid growth of the program had necessitated a more deliberate direction. So they started from scratch, beginning with a new vision and mission statement.

Throughout many conversations, students identified the Alternative Breaks program as a cultural experience. Steinbach challenged them to make the program live up to that. She also recognized that elements of culture and diversity were lacking in training the student leaders and set out to design a new curriculum.

“I am very proud of what we have done with all of our training materials for student leaders,” said Steinbach. “The program in the past typically included one day of diversity training. One of their meetings had a diversity activity, and that was it.”

The revamped curriculum now incorporates diversity or social justice into each training session. The components are sequential and build on each other. From September through March, nearly 40 student leaders participate in a number of activities and dialogues that challenge them to examine who they are.

“Some of them are thinking about for the first time what it means to have privilege, what it means to have a dominant identity, how do I go through life with that identity. It causes them to pause for deep reflection and culminates in asking, what kind of diversity change agent are you?” said Steinbach.

While the student leaders are contemplating these deeper issues, they are also working out the logistics of the trips. They must begin early in the Fall semester to secure locations and housing to accommodate groups of 45 in each place. The locations chosen for the trips are largely driven by student interest. Current social issues and the desire for variety also influence location selection, with time and funding being the only constraints. Participants often find themselves serving marginalized populations in the United States and examining issues related to socioeconomic status. Over the past several years, with major events like hurricanes and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, more attention has been given to environmental work, which examines the issue of power.

“The idea of diversity or social justice does present itself in a lot of ways, although it is more obvious on international trips. They are learning about culture, about the educational system or gender inequity,” said Steinbach. “The majority of students that participate are white and many come from middle class families in the Chicago suburbs. These experiences push them out of their comfort zones. To be in West Virginia and really see what rural poverty looks like is not something they would experience in this part of the country.”

A long-standing part of the program’s culture is challenging those comfort zones. Students do not know where they are going when they apply. They rank a list of social issues on their application and wait to learn their destination. For Spring Break, the selection process concludes in November, when a celebratory event is held to reveal where everyone is going, what their projects are and who is on each team. Some locations are more desirable than others, so this is a way to ensure that students have a genuine interest in community service.

“Efforts are made to make sure roommates or people in relationships do not go on the same trip. A lot of attention is given to meeting new people and really mixing it up, doing something that makes you a little nervous, because you don’t know anyone or don’t have any friends going with you,” Steinbach said.

Teams meet three to four times between the reveal and Spring Break in March. They get to know each other, discuss details of the trip, learn about their specific destinations and delve deeper into the social issues surrounding service work.

This year from Saturday, March 5, to Saturday, March 12, five groups will disperse throughout the country for Alternative Spring Break. One group will travel to Pensacola, Fla., for disaster relief work related to the oil spill. They will also have the opportunity to do human service activities related to healthcare or childcare. There will also be a group traveling to North Carolina for environmental work with a variety of organizations related to the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. Another cohort will travel to Pennsylvania to do trail work and work with natural habitat and trees.

New to Alternative Spring Break trips this year are partnerships with several student organizations. In alliance with the Illinois State chapter of Habitat for Humanity, one group will be traveling to Georgia. In partnership with the Greek Affairs office, students from campus sororities and fraternities will travel to New Jersey to work at a youth camp.

The learning experience continues when students return to campus. They have a “reorientation” event with speakers from each trip. Participants are encouraged to reflect on how to bring their work home with them and make service a lifelong pursuit. Some decide to return on their own to the locations that they went to on Alternative Break, volunteer locally or take a class related to the social issues they encountered in their experience. Many students choose to be leaders the next year and pass on their experiences to other students.

“This is the clearest evidence of the impact of the program,” said Steinbach. “These are exceptional students who are really interested in being a part of creating social change.”