Service Learning at the U: Alternative Spring Break

By By Michael McFall

By Michael McFall

Some students choose to spend their Spring Break serving the environment and communities across the country instead of partying in Cancún or taking a road trip to California.

This year, about 110 students are going on Alternative Spring Break, a drug- and alcohol-free service opportunity provided through the Bennion Community Service Center during the U’s Spring Break. The number of students attending is 13 more than last year’s Alternative Spring Break and 26 more than 2005’s Alternative Spring Break.

Participants travel to a community outside of Salt Lake City and provide service, socially or environmentally. Depending on where students choose to go, they might help the homeless, fundraise for AIDS service organizations, clean up rivers or pull weeds.

Besides student turnout, the number of destinations available has also steadily increased.

In 2005, the destinations were limited to five locations. Four of them were in California — Point Reyes, Arcata, San Francisco and Los Angeles — with an additional location in Seattle.

In 2006, San Juan River, Utah, and Portland, Ore.,

were added to Alternative Spring Break. In 2007, the Bennion Center added a trip to San Diego designed to explore issues of immigration and poverty along the United States-Mexico border.

This year has eight destinations again, and Erica Andersen, a junior in international studies and French, is considering going on the Arcata trip to remove weeds and other invading plants from the environment.

Andersen has never volunteered in an environmental service project like this before. Normally, she would spend her Spring Break lounging around and hanging out with friends. She changed her mind after she heard from friends what a wonderful experience Alternative Spring Break is.

“I want to do what I can for the environment…and I hear it’s beautiful (in Arcata),” she said.

Many of the participants have not done service work before, said Jon Wilkey, a junior in chemical engineering and site leader for the Arcata trip.

“It changes them,” he said.

A lot of students who go on the trip come back and volunteer their time to a similar cause, be it social or environmental, said Katie Trieu, a senior in chemical engineering and program coordinator.

Alternative Spring Break had this effect on Taylor Couvreur, a senior in linguistics who is now the director of the board of sustainability for the Associated Students of the University of Utah. After spending her Spring Break in Arcata and learning how to help the environment, she decided to join the student government and continue that mission.

Bryan Christensen, a senior in environmental studies and site leader for the Point Reyes, Calif., trip, said he thinks the trip is invaluable because he was able “to learn about the place and about people and opportunities to provide service where it’s needed.”

A lot of students who go on the trips as underclassmen come back and serve as site leaders on future trips when they’re juniors or seniors, said Trieu, herself included.

Trieu’s parents are immigrants. She said that last year’s trip to San Diego, focusing on the issue of immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border — although different than her parents’ experience — was a tough but educational experience for her.

“It’s by far one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve ever had at college,” she said.

Alternative Spring Break funding costs between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, Trieu said.

The Alternative Spring Break program receives some funding from ASUU, which donated $5,000 this year. The program also gets support from the Bennion Center and colleges around campus, including the environmental studies program.

Participants in Alternative Spring Break also raise money for the program by helping clean up the Huntsman Center after games and events.

The trips themselves are also paid in part by participants. Alternative Spring Break costs $300 to $400, depending on the location. City destinations such as San Francisco or Los Angeles cost the most, because students are housed in motels or hostels instead of camping by the river, as they do on the San Juan trip.

To get involved in Alternative Spring Break, visit the Bennion Center at the Union, Room 101, or apply online at www.asb.utah.edu.

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Environment clean up in Point Reyes, Calif., is one of the many programs offered by Alternative Spring Break.