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Alternative Spring Break Programs and Ideas for College Students

You can spend your spring break learning about systematic issues pertaining to education, heath, the environment and more, and volunteering your time to help a community in need. See if your university has an alternative spring break program or work directly with a community organization that coordinates volunteer opportunities.

A panel of three images showing SNHU students participating in alternative spring break service projects.

If you like to travel, participate in service projects and learn about systematic issues and how they affect communities, an alternative spring break trip might be for you. You can volunteer your time away from classes to help a community in need, traveling domestically or internationally, with a group of college students committed to a service-learning project.

For Nejra Fazlic ’19, participating in an alternative break trip was a no-brainer. By her senior year at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), she had been on three through The Chandler Center, the campus community and civic engagement office. “Service is a big part of who I am,” she said. 

At 3-years-old, she came to the U.S. as a refugee. “That has really shaped me into who I am and made me really passionate to give back,” she said. “Especially when I have been given so many opportunities myself.”

Elizabeth Richards and the text Elizabeth Richards.Whatever drives you to volunteer, many colleges and universities across the country sponsor service-learning trips to help students become active citizens, according to Break Away. Break Away is a national nonprofit that works with more than 200 schools to develop quality alternative break programs. 

“SNHU is part of this movement because we believe that part of our mission is preparing an educated citizenry to participate in the common good,” Elizabeth Richards, The Chandler Center’s director, said. “Alternative break is just one way we try to achieve this goal.”

What is an Alternative Spring Break?

An alternative spring break hones in on a social or environmental issue facing a specific group of people. While these service trips can be completed year-round, some universities offer it as an alternative way for students to spend their mid-semester break. 

“On an alternative break trip, you work closely with a community organization to really understand the systemic issues impacting the community where you’re serving,” Richards said. Not only will you learn from organizations committed to the cause, but you’ll have an opportunity to interact with the people directly affected by the issue. 

While the trip itself happens over break, Richards, who has worked with alternative break groups for 10 years, said it isn’t a one-week experience; it’s a three-part journey. 

  1. Ahead of the trip, you learn about the issues you will address through service. Not only does this educational piece prepare you for the experience, but it helps you understand the root of the problems.
  2. While on the trip, you serve the community you learned about in your pre-trip education. Serving looks different from project to project, but you’ll likely receive a trip itinerary that outlines your day to day activities ahead of the trip.
  3. Throughout the trip, you reflect on your experiences, connecting what you’ve learned with the work you’re doing. By reflecting on your thoughts and emotions, you create meaning.

“Service without education and reflection can feel meaningless,” Richards said. “When I ask people to share a service experience they’ve had that was bad, they almost always explain an experience where they were doing something and didn’t understand the meaning behind it.” By engaging in all three parts, you’ll get the most out of your alternative break experience, she said.

SNHU students during their alternative spring break service project in Utah.Examples of Alternative Spring Break Trips

While Fazlic said she likes to give back in any way she can, her true passion is for the environment. When she learned that one of four spring break trips last year was to Moab, Utah, to study climate change and its effect on national parks last year, she knew she needed to go. 

Whatever your passion is, there’s bound to be a trip that aligns with it. According to a sampling of 1,882 alternative break trips that ran throughout the 2018-19 academic year, Break Away’s 2019 National Alternative Break Survey Report (Break Away PDF source) discovered the top 10 trip focuses were:

  1. Environment
  2. Housing and homelessness 
  3. Health
  4. Food and hunger
  5. Education
  6. Disaster relief and rebuilding
  7. Immigration and refugee resettlement
  8. Youth development
  9. Ableism and disabilities
  10. Animal welfare

Sometimes, there’s overlap. For example, one group of students is traveling to Niagara, New York, this March to study the connections between mental health and homelessness.

Regardless of a trip’s focus, an alternative break is an opportunity to be a part of something bigger. “It’s much less about where you go or what you’re doing than it is about how these groups connect with one another, the learning that happens on the trip and how you become part of a community,” Richards said. 

How to Give Your Time and Reap the Benefits

See if your university has an alternative break program. If so, they might subsidize the cost of the trip and handle logistics. You can also work directly with a community organization that offers volunteer opportunities.

Outreach 360, for example, is a nonprofit committed to expanding education, leadership and service opportunities in Latin America. This year will be the sixth time SNHU students have partnered with the organization to teach English in the Dominican Republic, but you can also sign up to volunteer directly through Outreach 360. 

While spring breaks tend to be the most popular time to go on an alternative break (Break Away PDF source), Richards said working with an organization such as Break Away ensures that volunteer groups are always flowing in and out of communities in need. “We share information about community partners so that when one group from one institution leaves a site, another group can come in and continue the work,” Richards said.

By participating in an alternative break, you gain more than memories and a good feeling. You may even gain a new perspective on the world.

“You get a chance to be part of another community for a short time and learn about how their culture is different from your own. This means you get to try new foods and hear different kinds of music and learn new words and see a part of the world you may never have seen,” Richards said. “You do all of this with a group of your peers who you become incredibly close to in a very short amount of time.”

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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