Student Life

Students travel the country and beyond to perform good deeds with Alternative Winter Breaks

Photos of CMU Students on their Alternative Break trips . (Courtesy Photos)

Photos of CMU Students on their Alternative Break trips all over the country . (Courtesy Photos)

Dozens of students from Central Michigan University gave up a week or more of their winter breaks to travel around the country and help those who were less fortunate.

With the popularity of the Alternative Breaks program soaring, more students than ever were clamoring to participate in one of the breaks, where they would travel to a location – be it Texas, Connecticut, or even Germany – to assist a population there for one week, as well as learning more about their cause.

At the end of the fall 2013 semester, 19 different groups went out, including six new breaks that had never run before.

Each group corresponds with a social issue, from food sustainability to animal rescuing to helping those with disabilities.

“Alternative Breaks are life changing experiences,” said Josh Finch, a site leader for the Food Justice Break. “People get so caught up over the idea that they would give up a week of their break, but anyone who has gone on an AB can attest that you gain so much more.”

At the beginning of the process, students interested in signing up did so on the OrgSync web page. Experienced AB-ers suggest waking up early – registration starts at 7:30 a.m. sharp, and if you’re not on the page by 7:25, chances are good that you will not get signed up for a break.

From there, the groups meet once a week during the semester to educate themselves and others about their particular social issue. They find out where they will be traveling to after they have been accepted into a break group, to offset the possibility of students choosing a certain break just for a cheap trip to a certain area.

No matter where they went, the participants of Alternative Breaks had nothing but good things to say about the program. Finch, a Midland senior, said it was one of the best things he had done in his college career and recommended the experience to all students at CMU.

“This experience allows you to learn about critical issues in our society, meet some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet and refresh yourself in a way that only an AB can do,” Finch said.

Many of the other site leaders shared his point of view, saying Alternative Breaks make them feel inspired and refreshed when they return. CMU boasts one of the top five Alternative Break programs in the nation. Many of the site leaders urge other students to get involved with one, and to see for themselves why the program is nationally recognized.

“I believe that alternative breaks are important because they help students work directly with a social justice issue that they care about,” said Shawn Knight, one of two site leaders for the Animal Rescue Break, which traveled to Austin, Texas. “It also allows them to do it in a different community at a minimal cost, which is something that is very unique when it comes to volunteering. We also hope that students will bring what they learned back to the community.”

While many of the breaks are organized each year, the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center works to add new programs and the locations are subject to change annually. Registration for alternative summer breaks is at 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 27 using OrgSync.

The trips

One of the pioneer trips was an international AB that traveled to Germany and Poland in an effort to learn more about the Holocaust and its victims where it happened.

This trip was a bit different from the usual Alternative Breaks journeys. While they did some service learning – the students raked leaves at Auschwitz – the main focus of the trip was to learn about the Holocaust, not only as it happened during history, but its impact now and in the future.

“Usually, we think direct service is the most important, like building a house or teaching children,” said Rachel McDaniel, a participant and Allegan senior. “But for this trip, our service is learning. Now what we really need to do is take what we’ve learned and share it with our community at home.”

Another such trip took a group of students to Biloxi, Miss. to help restore some of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked eight years prior.

“This trip really opened my eyes to the immense devastation that still exists from Hurricane Katrina, even though it happened eight years ago,” said site leader and Royal Oak senior Michele Kissick. “The part that impacted us the most was hearing the stories about Hurricane Katrina directly from the people who lived through it. Everyone had such a different experience with it, and being able to hear about how they rebuilt their lives was truly amazing.”

Another group traveled to Austin, Texas to work at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit zoo in the city.

While there, the volunteers were able to work in several different animal habitats, such as those of primates, lemurs and foxes. They also assisted zookeepers in their day-to-day activities including food preparation and cleaning.

Another first time alternative break was the Science and Technology Education break, which traveled to Oklahoma City to help promote the enjoyment and education of Science and Technology to students there.

The volunteers helped kids with experiments and assisted the museum in other daily tasks.

“I think understanding science, or at least finding it interesting, is important for students to produce the next generation of scientists that will change our world,” said Edwardsburg junior Salina Bosworth, one of two site leaders on the break.

Click the image below to check out our interactive map of all 19 Alternative Winter Breaks.

8 Comments

  1. michmediaperson says:

    Why are we leaving the country?

    By focusing on problem areas in Michigan like Detroit, it would be more beneficial for the USA and we could cut salaries of government workers with free work time from CMU students.

    Or, were the CMU students paid a livable wage?

    • We actually do service projects in Michigan as well! We call them Alternative Weekends, where we send the same size group to places in Michigan to volunteer with similar social issues.

    • AB Participant says:

      The trips are volunteer trips, so students are not paid.

      If you read the article, Germany and Poland were trips dedicated holocaust awareness. Unless we (the United States) suffered a holocaust, students could not have done service in the US for that issue.

      The trips that these groups went on were impactful for people throughout the United States. What better way to help your country than hands on experience?

      I encourage you to appreciate what these students are doing, instead of suggesting that they could have done more.

      “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

    • The AB program also does several Alternative Weekends throughout the school year that are often within a few hours of Mt. Pleasant to help out causes in Michigan. All of the work that is done by these volunteers is exactly that – unpaid, social justice-seeking volunteerism.

    • In summer 2010 I was site leader for a week-long Alternative Break in Detroit. We worked with several non-profits in the city and touched on a number of social issues. It was an incredible experience!

      That being said, one of the goals of Alternative Breaks is to promote active citizenship; this entails learning about a social issue before your break, performing hands-on service during your break, and bringing the experience full-circle by volunteering in your local community once you return. It’s about continuous activism and engagement, not just about the hours you contribute during the trip.

      AB also does Alternative Weekends, which are held locally, throughout the year.

      The week-long winter/spring/summer breaks provide an extended opportunity for students to travel & explore the way these social issues impact people outside of our own community & country.

  2. Sick of MichMediaPerson says:

    Seriously, can you just be positive about something for once? It seems like every article, you feel the need to make some unnecessary comment. For your information, we also have Alternative Weekends that go out about twice a month and help around the Michigan area. In fact, one of them went to Detroit. How about you gain more information about things before you decide to make dumb comments about them? Do you have anything else to do besides spam the comment section? Goodness.

    • In summer 2010 I was site leader for a week-long Alternative Break in Detroit. We worked with several non-profits in the city and touched on a number of social issues. It was an incredible experience!

      That being said, one of the goals of Alternative Breaks is to promote active citizenship; this entails learning about a social issue before your break, performing hands-on service during your break, and bringing the experience full-circle by volunteering in your local community once you return. It’s about continuous activism and engagement, not just about the hours you contribute during the trip.

      AB also does Alternative Weekends, which are held locally, throughout the year.

      The week-long winter/spring/summer breaks provide an extended opportunity for students to travel & explore the way these social issues impact people outside of our own community & country.

  3. michmediaperson says:

    Why are we giving free labor to Germany and Poland?

    It should be America Only!

    Also, aren’t the unions in these cities going to be upset because you’re working for free?

    Also, the Liberal Democrats want a livable wage. If you’re going to work for free for Detroit, then are you going to demand a livable wage if you work part-time at McDonalds or Taco Bell?

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