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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Thursday, May 16, 2013 7 years ago

From 'voluntourism' to meaningful change

Students trade spring break for service
by: Micki Meyer

“Alternative spring break” has moved into the mainstream. This year, an estimated 85,000 American college students will forgo carefree vacations in favor of service-oriented projects. The number rises about 15 percent annually, according to Break Away, a nonprofit that works with colleges and universities to promote these trips.

Today’s college students see community engagement as a key component of learning, and they’re demanding service-based experiences that enrich and expand their academic perspectives. As a result, alternative breaks aren’t just growing in popularity. Their purpose is evolving too, shifting from the “voluntourism” model that blends vacations with brief, often superficial volunteer projects. The new model requires a fresh perspective – seeing students not as tourists or “saviors” for the underserved, but as partners in creating sustainable change.

Often, that means returning to a community over time. Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, colleges and universities such as Rollins still send teams to rebuild devastated areas of the Gulf (the destination of choice for approximately 50 percent of all alternative breakers). Rollins students have spent more than 15 years working on water-system trenches and purification systems in a Dominican Republic village. And every year, a Rollins team works with underserved children at Every Child Counts, a school focused on children with learning and developmental needs in the Bahamas.

Long-term investments like these empower community members to develop their own solutions. And ideally, the trips spark lifelong passions among students. Rollins student Adrian Cohen was so affected by homeowners he met in New Orleans that he became president of Rollins Relief, leading several trips to the city. After graduation, he returned to New Orleans to work with AmeriCorps on the St. Bernard Project, helping to rebuild the homes and lives of hurricane survivors.

These trips focus on areas where students can make the greatest impact with their time, energy and financial investments, a type of exchange the nonprofit group Amizade calls “fair trade learning.” Fair trade learning is where all members of the experience are equally transformed – by exchanges of information, ideas and resources. At HOPE CommUnity Center in Apopka, students pay $300 to stay in a migrant farmworker’s home for several days and eat local food, making a direct contribution to the family’s livelihood.

These aren’t “feel good” trips. On the contrary, students should return feeling uncomfortable about the realities they’ve witnessed – whether it’s living conditions in West Virginia coal mining towns, high school drop-out rates in Chicago or immigration hearings in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami. Only then will students feel the urgency of confronting injustice. The world desperately needs more people with a social conscience, who question the driving forces behind politics and policies, who stand alongside and speak out for the underserved. That’s clear in the growth of the “impact sector,” as nonprofits and corporations alike seek students with global perspectives and a willingness to see their work as a vocation.

Alternative breaks can play an important role in shaping these leaders. But it’s up to students to seize these opportunities, doing the difficult work of planning and reflecting on their experiences. And it’s up to generous community partners to provide funding streams that offer equal access so that every student can have this life-transforming opportunity. With time, alternative breaks won’t be so alternative anymore.

Micki Meyer is the Lord Family Director of Community Engagement at Rollins College in Winter Park.

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