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From trash to new paths: How Alternative Spring Break changed my outlook

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Aaron Gyllenhaal, a senior public relations student, shares his experience as a leader on the Honors Alternative Spring Break trip taken in March to Memphis, Tennessee.

One of the most common problems facing college students is that they want to make a change but do not know where to start. As our view broadens from the self-contained world of high school, our awareness of societal problems become increasingly prevalent. We begin to see our potential power and want to learn how to exercise it. However, every issue at the forefront of our minds seems unsolvable and insurmountable for one person. Programs like Alternative Breaks give students a tangible place to start.

I went on my first Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in 2018. I was part of a group of 40 Honors students that travelled to New Orleans to educate low-income youth about financial literacy. While on this trip, I fell in love with the Alternative Breaks program. I decided to deepen my involvement in the program for my next trip, so I became a trip leader.

During preparation for this year’s break, I learned to facilitate productive conversations within a group, to handle trying situations with a level head, and to grow my leadership skills. The service is always rewarding on these trips, but the additional skills I learn are equally as beneficial and will be integral to my success in the professional world.

While I would love to say this year’s trip was executed without a hitch, that would be a lie. As our six-hour drive down to Memphis neared its end, we heard a loud pop. The bus unfortunately broke down seven minutes away from our final destination. Fortunately, people at our housing site came to the rescue and slowly moved our group of 42 students and our luggage by the carful until we all arrived safely. What could have been a troubling situation turned into a bonding experience for everyone on the trip. At that moment I knew this would be an amazing trip. Even in a situation that should have been stressful for everyone, we managed to make it a fun, worthwhile experience.

This ability to tackle problems head on and with a smile became a trip theme. The organization we worked with was Living Lands & Waters, whose mission is to clean up the banks of the Mississippi River.

While it was disheartening to pull up to a new location and see piles of trash on the banks, we felt an incomparable sense of accomplishment looking at the pristine ground once we finished. Over the course of the week, Illinois State students, along those from a few other schools, managed to collect over 50,000 pounds of trash! When I first heard this statistic, I was blown away. For the first time, I felt like I had contributed to the solution of a problem that always made me feel helpless.

Every participant returns from break feeling empowered. Honors Program Coordinator Amy Secretan has led Honors ASB trips for the past few years. Secretan sees the value in these trips. “The participants are able to spend time serving with like-minded peers who all want to not only make a difference in their world, but also share the knowledge they gain and become catalysts of change when they return from the trip.”

Related Article: Restoring Mississippi River ISU students volunteer over spring break to clean up river.

This was the third-consecutive ASB trip for junior accounting major Allison Leczycki. “ASB allows you to really understand a social issue and enables you with the power to take action against that social issue. Every trip has truly been life changing and, of course, the people are the absolute best!”

College offers students the ability to become active, engaged, and aware citizens that positively contribute to change. Both of my experiences on ASB trips have opened my eyes and taught me how I can use my power to help other people. This break connected me with new people, allowed me to develop my leadership skills, and gave me a deep sense of accomplishment that a normal spring break never could.

Aaron Gyllenhaal can be reached at