Spring break is one of the hallmarks of college. People want to encapsulate their college years into these mini-vacations, like time capsules that transfer you back into the younger years of your life, which is why, for a vacation that lasts no longer than 10 days, students spend so much time talking about and planning spring break. Should it be a road trip to Lake Tahoe, or should we go to Miami? Wait, I don’t think I have swimsuits that would fit our group’s theme. Please print out the color-coded timeline I have sent you, and remember that failure to observe it can result in social banishment!
Some, however, choose a different way to add meaning to their college years by going on what has been deemed alternative spring break. Instead of sunbathing in Malibu, students go to service sites and help community partners. At MSU, Alternative Spartan Break, or ASB, is celebrating its 33rd anniversary this year. For ASB, the road ahead presents many challenges but also opportunities to learn and grow as a service organization.
Sydney Puda, Vice President of Service, has been working with ASB since she started school at Michigan State. An animal science senior who has recently been admitted to MSU’s veterinary program, Puda attributed her success in the application cycle to her active involvement with ASB.
“My freshman and sophomore year, I went on two trips that were focused on animals,” Puda said. “The first one was called Helping Homeless Animals. It was a trip where we helped an animal shelter in Louisiana, and then the second trip was a sea turtle conservation trip my sophomore year, and that was in Florida. ... Both of those trips were very animal-focused, and I got leadership experience. Those are some really big things that veterinary school looks for. So, they want to make sure you’re a leader; you’ve been in leadership positions, and they also want to make sure you’re getting experience with animals.”
Her time working for ASB has made her a more confident person as well. Sydney said she now has the confidence to engage with the communities she serves more actively.
“My freshman year, when I went on a trip, I was not as confident to talk to the community partner about things,” Puda said. “When I went on the site leader retreat this past weekend, I was like, ‘I’m going to talk to the community partner, and I’m gonna go engage in a conversation and ask them about their past, their story and everything. It kinda gives you more confidence to learn about the community as well. ... So I’ve grown in a multitude of ways.”
Amir Tavakoli, the president of ASB and senior physiology student, first learned of ASB from his roommate freshman year. After being a site leader at ASB’s Spring Break Trips to Pennsylvania to help provide animal therapy for people with disabilities, Tavakoli knew he wanted to continue to be a part of ASB.
“It’s a really rewarding feeling to go and sacrifice your time and energy for someone else after you see how much of an impact it has on them and how happy it can make them,” Tavakoli said. “That’s really an inspiring feeling that made me want to continue to do it, and then have a bigger role helping others to be able to feel the same way because I knew after that I just wanted to keep volunteering and do as many different things as I could.”
Last week, Tavakoli and ASB helped a church in Michigan. This particular church is also a school and, consequently, a place of escape for children who have a rough home life. ASB believed that by helping the church, they were also aiding in the building of new communities. The student volunteers are not alone, as they are also working with other grassroots organizations and volunteers, whose ages span from 20 to 80.
As a part of this wider network, students have the opportunity to create friendships in the most unexpected place. During his very first service trip, Tavakoli and his friends became close friends with the granddaughter of the family that works with the same organization.
“She was five years old; she kept calling us her best friends,” Tavakoli said. “We were her ‘Michigans’ because we were from Michigan. She still messages me on Facebook all the time.”
This year, ASB is returning to work for the same organization, and they have prepared a little surprise for the little girl. This current crop of volunteers is bringing letters from the former participants of the trips.
“(We want to say) ‘Hey, we are still thinking about you; your friends are still here. These are your new friends that came from Michigan — we sent them for you.’”
Memories were made, and connections that could last for a lifetime were formed, but organizing service trips is no easy feat. Not everyone is keen on the idea of spending money and time to volunteer 40 hours a week. If organizing is not done properly, participants can feel like they are just vacationing while also being able to put teaching English on their resume. That goes against the meaning of service.
Voluntourism has been more popular than ever, with tourists taking pictures of themselves with malnourished children as a prop. ASB and its advisor, the Center for Community Engaged Learning, or CCEL, go through painstaking efforts every year to ensure the sustainability and ethicality of the trips. Trips are planned around the framework of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Students only know about the field of activism and service they are going into, not the specific location of the trip.
Sustainability also means inspiring and encouraging students to continue their service long after the trips.
“We do know this is a very short time, and you’re not going to save the world in a week,” said Tina Houghton, ASB advisor and a CCEL Program Manager. “But, what experience and what education and what mindset can you gain from that short term community engaged learning expereince and bring it back either to East Lansing, your community, the college community, or, if you happen to be a senior, where are you going to take it?”
What ASB tried to do is to create these trips that can become a gateway to actively participating in your community. Students who enjoy building ramps for the Council of Aging in Florida can continue with a community partner already established in East Lansing and so on. This is only the beginning.
Like many other organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit ASB in many ways. This upcoming spring break trip will be the first in two years. Before the pandemic, as many as 25 trips were sent out during the springtime; there are only six this year. Organizers also have to navigate through enforcing MSU’s community mandates as well as the destination’s guidelines.
Due to the nature of serving underserved and vulnerable populations, the number of available sites has also dropped. Funding remains an issue, so the organization also has to work on reducing program fees and increasing their payment flexibility and creating scholarships.
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“If we could make these (trips) $200 or less, I think we would have a lot more participation,” Houghton said. “But, as we are headed into inflation right now, and other things, I am not sure what it’s gonna be. I think that is the (goal).”
Two years have passed since the day we mistakenly went back home, thinking that it would just be two weeks. Many things have changed, for better or worse. For ASB, it is probably the former.
“A big part of ASB is not only going to serve somewhere but bringing back what you learned in that service and doing it in your own community and spreading it around,” Tavakoli said.
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