CMU's alternative breaks program brings students closer to social issues, solutions


Central Michigan University has one of the best alternative break programs in the nation, according to the 2013-14 National Chapter Survey by Break Away, a nonprofit organization that helps offer guidance and assistance to alternative break programs.

The program ranked fourth in the nation for the number trips taken and ranked seventh in terms of number of participants.

"There are a lot of people who get on a break and are unsure beforehand, but the whole experience at the end is a great learning experience," said CMU alumnus Jenn Tabeek. "You can learn about yourself and another community, but also you're going to make really close friends."

Erica Johnson, assistant director of the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center, said during the 2013-14 academic year, 536 students participated in the program. The number of students participating this year increased by more than 100 students as compared to last year.

Tabeek was at CMU for six years, and was involved with the alternative break program since her sophomore year. She said that she didn't feel quite at home at the university until her first alternative break trip. There, she found people who shared the same values and motivations as her and had a close group of friends by the end of the trip.

She has been on 12 trips across the country and Thailand, most recently traveling to Biloxi, Miss. Most students attend domestic trips, but each year the Volunteer Center tries to host two international breaks.

Each break is a completely different learning experience for those who attend, as no two missions are alike.

Alternative breaks offer 38 unique social issues that students can volunteer with. The work they do while on a break varies depending on the site that they choose, whereas some of the issues tackled include disaster relief, HIV/AIDS, suicide prevention and substance abuse.

Johnson said common volunteer activities with community partners include organizing and handing out supplies to clients, yard work, building construction and maintenance, staffing events and tutoring and classroom assistance.

"I've never gone on a break that was under the same social issue," Tabeek said. "I tried to learn about different ones across the U.S., I think each break is a completely (different) learning experience. Although you're there to serve the community and help projects, you take a lot from it and learn about yourself."

The alternative breaks program offers week-long breaks during the winter, spring and summer.  They also offer weekend breaks Friday through Sunday.

Johnson said domestic trips last for approximately one week. She said benefits for students are many and encouraged 

"Many of the community organizations we partner with count on our annual visit to do projects they don’t have the staff to do during the rest of the year," Johnson said. "CMU truly makes a difference in our partner communities."



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