Alternative breaks allow students to engage in social issues

The Yakima alternative break students gather around a table to discuss their work in. The Yakima trip will be offered spring break 2018.

By: Arianna Schmidt News Contributor

Projects work with nonprofits to provide educational opportunities, immerse in communities.

The Alternative Break program is a week-long experience over spring break where students immerse themselves in learning and engaging with different social issues and communities in a transformative way.

“We do a balance of educational opportunities and direct service experiences, so the trips or the programs do a wide variety of different things while they are out and about,” Melissa Lee, the Civic Engagement graduate teaching assistant for the program, said.

These direct service projects are traditional, such as volunteering for nonprofits, but the program includes special opportunities to meet legislators and local officials, as well as community stakeholders.

“It’s a great way to have students explore new things and explore their values and beliefs and learn about different communities and people that might have different views than them,” Lee said.

Housed in Student Leadership and Involvement, the Center for Civic Engagement funds the program, according to Lee. Since the trip fee used to cover nearly all of the costs, it was open to all students (except travel grants). However, now that the program is much more heavily subsidized, it should be that Hatfield/Newport and Corvallis-based students are eligible due to the student fee structure. That would be for the program as a whole, which includes travel grants.

Students join the program for a wide range of reasons, Lee added. 

“Some people are looking for something fun and different to do over their spring break,” Lee said. “Some are looking to get more involved in civic engagement and learning about social issues.” 

According to Lee, students are interested in meeting and bonding with new people, as well as in visiting a specific geographic region that the program offers, and spring break is the ideal time to do this since students are off school.

“I went to Yakima, Washington last year. We met with native folks in the community to learn about their culture and heritage and their history with the area,” Lee said.

Trips to Yakima, Wash., Ashland, Ore. and San Francisco, Calif. are offered over spring break this year, which will take place March 24-31, 2018. According to Lee, the Yakima trip focuses on the history of land use and culture of native folks in the area. The Ashland trip surrounds environmental justice issues and the San Francisco program targets poverty and homelessness.

“Each trip focuses on a variety of different social issues. Last year in San Francisco, one of the issues people learned about was how LGBTQ+ youth are impacted by homelessness,” Lee said.

A trip is also offered in Warm Springs, Oregon in June during zero week, which is also focused on the history of land use as well as native voices, according to Lee.

A wide variety of students join the program, from seniors all the way down to first-years, Lee added.

“I don’t think a single participant on my program last year came from the same major or same area of campus,” Lee said.

According to Yuriyah Reed-Harris, a biology pre-med senior who attended the Yakima, Washington trip last year, she wanted to use her time to give back to the community over spring break, and the Alternative Break program appealed to her in that way.

“I think my favorite part was definitely interacting with the Yakima nation people,” Reed-Harris said. “I think that was because it’s a population of individuals that has been so marginalized their entire existence, and they have a reason to be untrusting, but they’re some of the kindest and most trusting people that I’ve ever met.”

According to Reed-Harris, her perspective on medicine changed after attending the program, and it also changed the way she is thinking about serving her patients in the future.

“I really have this idea that these patients are not only patients anymore, they’re people and they all have a story, they all have a culture and a life that is something outside of the element or illness that I may or may not be treating, so I think it’s really important to get to know people,” Reed-Harris said.

According to Jillian Kimura, a senior studying digital communication arts, she wanted to get more involved in the community after her alternative break and now works in the CCE to help impact important issues facing the public. Kimura also attended the Yakima trip last spring and said it changed her perspective mostly on homelessness and poverty.

“We worked with this woman Ellie, and she really involves herself in the community and she was our liaison,” Kimura said. “She talks a lot about how people have these stereotypes for homeless people, but you just have to smile and say, ‘Hi, good morning’.”

Lee says, outcomes and changes in perspectives vary among students.

“It’s a collaborative team experience, so you gain a lot of leadership experience and ways to have conversations around difficult social issues. I think in the time that we’re living in, this is a great tool to have,” Lee said.

Alternative Breaks are an opportunity to travel and learn about new areas, according to Lee. Participants attend pre-trip meetings so that they will have met before the start of each trip.

“I participated in an Alternative Break when I was an undergrad and that’s how I met some of my best friends,” Lee said. “I’ve seen the relationships that have formed out of alternative breaks here at Oregon State University and it’s really special.”

According to Lee, the program gives engaging tools to students to use when they get back and they use the skills they’ve learned and apply it to the community to stay involved. Travel grants are available for students who are eligible for Human Services Resource Center. This year, programs cost $100, Lee added.

“It is breaking away from the norm and spending your spring break broadening your horizons and learning about new things and new people and hearing stories and forming relationships,” Lee said. “It changed my career path and I know it has changed several other students’ and has also just ignited a passion to change the world in students.”

Was this article helpful?