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Alternative Breaks alumni give back to their communities

Illinois State alumni Matt Miller and Kyle Leonard, with George Washington student Carla Plascencia

Illinois State alumni Matt Miller and Kyle Leonard with George Washington student Carla Plascencia

The Division of Student Affairs is proud to highlight two alumni who have made a significant impact in their careers and communities by sharing their life-changing experiences with others since graduating from Illinois State University.

Kyle Leonard ’13 and Matt Miller ’14 teach at Chicago’s George Washington High School, which serves a predominantly Hispanic student population. Interestingly enough, the alums’ paths crossed before working together, when they both participated in an Illinois State Alternative Breaks (AB) trip to Costa Rica in 2012.

Leonard and Miller were both heavily involved in AB. They held leadership roles in the organization and gained valuable professional skills such as facilitation, problem-solving, and working with and leading peers. Leonard said he and Miller utilize these skills first in their classrooms, and also on service trips they plan for their students, very similar to Alternative Breaks.

“We strive to be active citizens within our communities, and this trip helps to light the fire within each of us and facilitate the process.”—Kyle Leonard

Each spring break, Leonard, Miller, and a few other adults take 45 middle and high school students from Chicago to New Orleans to participate in social justice service trips. They work at an urban farm to promote sustainability and rebuild homes for residents in the area most damaged from Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward, which was also unfortunately the area to receive the least amount of government assistance. While on the trip, students learn about and discuss these kinds of injustices, similar to those seen in Chicago.

“There are many overlaps between the injustices happening in both cities, and having students from different Chicago Public Schools come together for a week in NOLA creates a foundation for student activism within Chicago upon our return,” Leonard said. “We strive to be active citizens within our communities, and this trip helps to light the fire within each of us and facilitate the process.”

From the direct service opportunities to reflection activities, Leonard said that “almost everything we learned from our AB experience, we have brought to this trip” and that “our students thrive within this AB-like environment.” Illinois State prepared Leonard and Miller to be experts in their field through rigorous courses and strong experiential learning experiences outside the classroom.

“Almost everything we learned from our AB experience, we have brought to this trip.”—Kyle Leonard

Leonard and Miller not only teach their students about becoming active citizens, but also share with them the opportunities available at Illinois State University. They talk about their own experiences and “the massive amount of opportunities that students have to get involved outside of participating in academics.”

One of their students and trip participants, high school junior Carla Plascencia, is already excited to become a Redbird because of everything her role models, Leonard and Miller, have told her about Illinois State. According to her teachers, Plascensia “lives and breathes for social justice and social change for every underserved person.”

Since Plascencia’s goal is to become a teacher herself, she knows that Illinois State is the place for her. “ISU is known for their development of teachers, and I know that this school will not only help (me) get closer to my dreams, but will allow me to expand my leadership role in this society and planet,” said Plascencia.

Leonard and Miller are confident that Plascencia, described as a born leader and an activist, will leave an impact on Illinois State, just as they did.

Thank you, Kyle and Matt, for your involvement in Student Affairs at Illinois State, and for integrating what you learned here into your career and communities!

Let us know what you’ve been doing since graduation by emailing with the subject Alumni Update. We look forward to hearing from you!