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What is Alternative Break? (And what can your college student get out of it?)

Male and female volunteers hammering wood

Alternative Break gives college students an opportunity to do service work in communities in need around the country and world.

A chance to learn, grow, and develop into someone who can thrive in the professional world. It’s what so many students want to get from their college experience—and what many parents want for their students—and it’s encapsulated in an opportunity that you and your student may not even know about: Alternative Breaks.

Here are some things to know about Alternative Breaks and how it can enhance your student’s college experience:

Student holding carrots and smiling

An Illinois State student works on a sustainable farm in Ecuador in South America during an Alternative Break trip.

What an Alternative Break looks like

Taking place during semester breaks and ranging from a couple of days to a couple of weeks in length, these service-learning trips offer an opportunity to learn about social issues and support projects with nonprofit organizations around the local community, country, and world.

Standard school breaks often turn into leisurely vacations, but an Alternative Break gives your student an opportunity to gain real-world experience outside the classroom and meet new people while leaving a lasting impact on a community.

Groups tackle social issues such as education inequity, poverty, the environment, and support for those with special health needs. Along the way, the students set the tone, as the participants fill leadership roles with responsibilities ranging from leading discussion groups to working out trip logistics to fundraising to external and internal communications.

Civic engagement is one of Illinois State’s core values. Learn more about how Redbirds are working to give back to the community.

Diving deeper

Alternative Break is more than just a simple service trip.

“I think what sets it apart from your typical, ‘I’m just going to go volunteer,’ is you’re really diving deep into a particular social issue,” said Annie Weaver, Coordinator for Student Volunteer Opportunities with the Center for Civic Engagement and Service Learning at Illinois State University. “Whether that’s the environment, or homelessness, or access to fair housing, you’re really going to learn about that particular issue and you’re going to get really involved in the community you’re visiting.”

With Alternative Breaks, it’s all about context and reflection.

Students don’t just show up at a site in the morning, do some work, and then go home. Alternative Break is an experience with far more depth, developed through pre- and post-trip meetings in which participants learn about and discuss the relevant social issue. Before, during, and after the trip students also take part in daily reflection, featuring open discussions about how they’ve experienced the service and what it means to them.

The result is that while the students leave an impact on the world, the world leaves its impact on them.

Amy Secretan, Honors Program coordinator at Illinois State, oversees and participates in her program’s annual Alternative Spring Break trip. During her first Alternative Break experience, she saw how simple challenges can affect students, like when she handed one student a power sander during a project at a campsite at Crowley’s Ridge State Park in Arkansas.

“One of the girls, who was a very tiny individual, she picked up this giant, industrial sander and started going to work on a door. She put it down and said, ‘Wow, I feel so empowered!’” Secretan said. “It’s such a little moment, but showing the students that they can make a difference in society no matter what their gender and no matter what people think they’re capable of. That’s a very powerful thing.”

Those moments are often the most rewarding.

Students in hard hats pose on construction site

Students pose on a worksite during restoration work at Crowley’s Ridge State Park in Arkansas during Alternative Spring Break.

“For us, the reflection is the most important part of the Alternative Break experience—to talk about why they just did what they did,” Weaver said. “It helps them really understand why they’re there. Many times students come back and say the most memorable thing was those reflections. It’s not only about the social issue, but also about one another.”

Finding a place

Rolling up your sleeves, sweating side by side, and sharing inner thoughts can make for an intense bonding experience; those bonds are often long-lasting. Even if your student doesn’t have experience doing service, the social aspect of the alternative break is something that speaks to everyone.

Rebecca Vondriska, a veteran of four Alternative Spring Breaks at Illinois State, went into her freshman year uncertain about what Alternative Break was or how to expand her network of friends on campus.

“At the end of that first trip, I had 50 new friends I hadn’t known before,” Vondriska said. “Seeing all these familiar faces I could say ‘Hi,’ to, it really brightened up my day.

“The friendships on Alternative Break, one day on the trip is like a year of friendship—you get so close to these people and you don’t even realize it’s happening. Some of my best friends I’ve made throughout college have been through Alternative Break.”

Civic engagement is one of Illinois State University’s core values. Explore more about Alternative Break—and other service opportunities—as a Redbird.

Related Article: From the source: Why students choose Alternative Breaks

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