Alternative spring breaks connect with college students

Students from the College of William and Mary dig footholds for a foundation in the groundbreaking of a housing project for Crystal Coast Habitat for Humanity.
Students from the College of William and Mary dig footholds for a foundation in the groundbreaking of a housing project for Crystal Coast Habitat for Humanity. (College Of William And Mary)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some of Jonathan Sitko's classmates at Catholic University of America spent spring break on cruises or on the beach. He spent his in Maryville, Tenn., building houses for the poor.

"Alternative spring breaks" are diverting a growing number of college students from a week of sloth and excess in Florida to study post-election violence in Kenya, help public defenders in New Orleans or teach English in the Dominican Republic.

"You can always just go on a beach and drink beer and whatnot," said Sitko, 21, a junior from Bethlehem, Pa. "I wanted to experience a different sort of living than what I'm accustomed to."

Sitko had seldom traveled farther south than Northern Virginia. His trip to Tennessee with Habitat for Humanity last week as part of a 14-person Catholic University group exposed him to "a different kind of atmosphere," he said: slower-paced, yet parallel in some ways to that of his childhood home. He spoke by cellphone at the end of a day spent installing siding.

"We met the future owner," Sitko said. The owner and students worked together.

Some college officials say alternative spring breaks originated at Vanderbilt University in 1987, as a student-led initiative to invest meaning into the week. The name might have started there, but the concept appears to be older. Georgetown University began sending groups of students on spring community-service missions to Appalachia in 1973.

An informal survey found many alternative break programs in the Washington region, most relatively new and growing fast. Hurricane Katrina, five years ago, breathed new life and fresh urgency into the programs; many colleges now send buses to Mississippi and Louisiana every March.

The Center for Social Justice at Georgetown sent 194 students on 13 alternative spring break trips last week, "and that's just my department," said Ray Shiu, program director for student leadership and special programs.

The campus-wide total is larger. One group journeyed to New Orleans to help in the continuing effort to rebuild. Another headed to El Paso to explore the border community. A third went to Immokalee, Fla., to study migrant labor.

Students contribute $100 or $200 toward travel and lodging. Costs are subsidized through tuition and activity fees. The program is so popular that, this year, 60 students were turned away.

"We've had some students say this is the best part of their Georgetown experience," Shiu said. "Hopefully, it's a starting point for students to take what they've learned and incorporate it into their lives."

Howard University has one of the largest alternative break programs in the region, with 400 students scattered in five U.S. cities this week. Students are working to reduce gun violence in Chicago, teaching reading in Detroit and aiding a public defender in New Orleans.

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