Rebecca Vondriska did not expect that a bus breaking down would set her spring break off on the right foot.
The year was 2016, and she was a freshmen on her first experience with Illinois State University’s Alternative Breaks program, which gives students the opportunity to volunteer their time to enact social change by helping to meet tangible needs in other communities. Trips are available over spring, winter or summer break as well as weekends and are supported by the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.
Looking back at her freshman year experience, Vondriska admitted she initially was uncertain about the trip, which she joined at the suggestion of her academic advisor in order to fulfill an honors learning experience requirement.
“When I first got on the bus, I was super nervous. I was like, ‘This is kind of a risk. I might not have fun,’” she recalled.
Then the team’s bus broke down in Kentucky and everything changed.
“Those six hours changed the trip for me because those were really six hours when we were bonding and getting to know each other,” she said as she explained how those hours spent stranded on the side of the road gave rise to some of her closest college friendships.
Vondriska continued, “These people that I met have impacted my life so much that I couldn’t imagine not doing Alternative Spring Break all four years … Each day on Alternative Breaks is like a year of friendship in real life because we all come away so close after the trip. It’s definitely the friendships that make me want to keep doing it.”
And continue she has, for each of her four years at ISU.
That first year, Vondriska volunteered with a group of students who traveled to Winder, Georgia, to work with Habitat for Humanity.
“We did renovations on an abandoned middle school to make a new community center for the neighborhood,” she said.
The next year, she helped with an environmental restoration project at Crowley’s Ridge State Park in Paragould, Arkansas. While there, the group completed a range of activities including making fish habitats out of old Christmas trees, cleaning up a trash pit by a reservoir and collectively chopping down a tree with an ax.
Spring break her junior year found Vondriska in New Orleans helping underprivileged youth learn about financial literacy through an organization called Junior Achievement.
“That one was probably the hardest one I’ve had to do, but also the most impactful because we were working directly with children in schools,” she said. “We would get these big packets of material to teach them—hundreds of pages—then we would go into the classrooms each day by ourselves. Each participant went to a different classroom and would just teach for a full day.”
Vondriska admitted she was nervous going in to work in fourth grade classrooms, but she quickly found herself enjoying interacting with the kids. She noted the experience helped her to better understand the value of showing respect to others.
“That’s still something that’s with me today,” she said. “I think children are our future and how we treat them is how they will grow up to be, so I was happy that I could make an impact on them at least for one day and show them the respect they deserve because they were all very bright kids and really wanted to learn. It was really neat to meet them and hopefully give them something they will remember.”
This spring, the senior joined a group working with the organization Living Lands and Waters near Memphis, Tenn., to clean up trash along the Mississippi River.
“The trip was awesome, but the service was very shocking because you don’t think that there’s that much trash out in the world. I just assumed it goes to landfills,” she said. “Just the amount of plastic and styrofoam and all those things that just end up washed up on the shores of the Mississippi River is crazy, and styrofoam doesn’t biodegrade. My big takeaway from this trip was, yeah, we went and we cleaned it up, but we left so much styrofoam still on the shores because we will never be able to pick up that much broken down styrofoam. I went away from the trip feeling frustrated that people are still littering and this is still such an issue.”
This process of helping students become more aware of social concerns is one of the main goals of the Alternative Breaks program. Each night, participants take part in a time of reflection and evaluate where they are on what Vondriska described as the “active citizen continuum.”
“It goes member, volunteer, conscientious citizen and then active citizen,” she explained. “It’s a place to track where you are on the social issue. I think all these Alternative Breaks trips turn everyone into at least a conscientious citizen, and that’s being aware of the social issue, asking why, trying to figure out different causes of it.”
For her own part, Vondriska’s awareness of different needs has grown alongside her commitment to service. She explained the importance of “understanding that our world is so much more than ourselves.”
The senior continued, “If we’re not the ones going out and trying to make a change and trying to be conscientious of the world around us, then the world is only going to get worse. We need to actively be helping and constantly learning about the world around us and that’s something that this trip does. You’re constantly learning about deep issues and you’re getting exposed to things that you didn’t even know where issues. I know people who have completely changed their majors because of these trips. They were so impacted by what we did.”
She went on to speak about the value of finding something you are passionate about and supporting that issue by raising funds and giving of your time.
“There’s so much opportunity and right now we’re being shaped into the adults that we’re going to become so having those experiences can really help us grow,” she said.
As a double major in Human Resource Management and Organizational Leadership, Vondriska has studied a lot of theories about leadership roles, but participating in the spring break trips gave her the chance to get firsthand experience putting into practice what she learned in the classroom. Her first leadership role came her sophomore year when she was the site trip leader.
“I was tasked with finding where we were going to do our service and then keeping the connection with them, emailing back and forth to make sure we had everything we needed and they needed the rest of the semester,” she recalled.
During her junior year, Vondriska handled the internal communication for trip participants and kept them informed about upcoming meetings and event information. This year, she not only found and arranged the service site, but also she was the bus leader, who oversaw the other team leaders and the ISU student participants on the trip to Tennessee.
“Through my trip leader experience and my bus leader experience, I’ve taken away so much,” shared Vondriska. “These trips have been so instrumental in helping me just become more grownup, I guess. Literally you spend a whole year planning this trip, getting in contact with ‘adults’ when you still feel like you’re such a kid. You’re a kid planning a big trip for 40 people, and you’re getting in touch with the site you want to work for and the housing you’re going to have. You’re planning these meetings, setting up curriculum for the participants and you’re leading reflection and really critically thinking about the social issue and getting others to critically think as well.”
This year, she particularly gained practice with solving logistical challenges on the spot when the group faced a bus breakdown on the highway seven minutes from their housing site.
“It’s different being on that side of the bus breakdown,” Vondriska said, explaining that as a freshmen she used the time they were stranded to make new friends, but as bus leader, she had to come up with and execute a plan for how to address the situation and get the team to their destination.
Honing her leadership skills has not been the only way Vondriska has grown personally through the trips.
“As a person I think I’ve definitely figured out that I want to focus at least some part of my life on volunteering and service,” she explained. “I hadn’t realized how important it actually was to me until I’d done these trips and learned about these social issues. As a person, I think I’ve become much more aware of the issues in the world because of these trips. It makes me want to be an advocate.”
Alternative Spring Break takes place each March during spring break at Illinois State. The social issues for our 2020 trips will be announced in August when applications open. Trip destinations will be revealed during pre-trip meetings.
To fill out an application for an upcoming Alternative Breaks trip or to learn about trip leadership positions, visit communityengagement.illinoisstate.edu/students/alternative-breaks.
Applications will open August 19 and are due October 21.