In the clichéd college spring break, students lounge in the sun all day and party late into the night. But not all students fit the stereotypical mold, and many seek out more meaningful ways to spend their free time.
Enter alternative spring breaks—volunteer programs that allow you to trade beach sand under your toes for dirt under your fingernails. Whether staying in their local communities or traveling abroad, students on alternative spring breaks have the chance to do something productive and meaningful that could potentially change their outlook on life.
“Alternative spring breaks are spring breaks with a purpose,” says Theresa Higgs, vice president of operations for United Planet, an international nonprofit organization that provides several student volunteer programs primarily outside the United States.
Opportunities range from lending a hand in an orphanage in Cambodia, which is possible through United Planet, or helping to restore hiking trails in the Grand Canyon, an activity spring breakers have participated in through Student Conservation Association, which allows young adults to work in America’s national parks.
Many organizations like United Planet and Student Conservation Association exist to provide students with options for alternative spring breaks, and some colleges offer alternative spring break options specifically for their students as well.
Picking a program
Higgs recommends that college students first ask themselves why they want an alternative spring break. What are your goals, and what activities most interest you in your life?
Kevin Hamilton, vice president for marketing and communications at the Student Conservation Association, notes that alternative spring breaks don’t have to reflect what you’re studying in college. “What we’re most looking for is passion,” he says. “We’re looking for students who really want to give back, who are passionate about the environment, who want to work together as part of a team, who aren’t afraid to put in some hard work.”
After deciding what you want to achieve on your alternative spring break, it’s time to consider where you want to go. Though traveling overseas is particularly appealing to many students, travel can suck up a lot of time, so it might be worthwhile to stay within a few time zones of your college so you don’t spend half of your break on an airplane. It’s also important to consider your interests when debating where to go. Perhaps you’re studying a foreign language you’d like to practice or have particular ties to a country you’d like to visit. Many alternative spring break programs aren’t entirely focused on volunteer work, and you should also consider what else you’d like to get from this college life experience.
“Students are taking a break from school and their world, and they want a little adventure, a little fun,” Higgs says. At United Planet, for example, students have the option to do some sightseeing, and cultural immersion is a big focus of the program. The Student Conservation Association, on the other hand, gives students time to explore the national park they’re working in.
What’s it going to cost you?
Finally, what is your budget for the experience? Most alternative spring break programs run from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars (which may or may not include transportation to and from the program site). This money helps pay for room, board, project management fees and other expenses, depending on the program.
“You can get a phenomenal experience at a very low or no cost … or even at an expense paid level,” Hamilton says. “Giving back shouldn’t come with a price tag. In fact, you want to get back as much as you give.”
Timing is everything
One of the biggest complaints about alternative spring breaks is that they’re simply too short. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in extending your spring break, it’s tough to do so in the middle of the school year. However, many organizations that offer alternative spring breaks also offer longer programs up to one year in length, which fit well over month-long winter breaks or during the summer months.
During these longer breaks, students can dig deeper into the local culture, spend more time getting to know the people with whom they’re working and invest more time and effort into their projects. Nonetheless, even in a week’s time, an alternative spring break may very well change the course of your life, just as it has for other students. Some students return home and change their major or field of study, or they may decide to commit to more volunteer time in their college town.
Regardless of how an alternative spring break affects you, though, chances are what you get out of the experience will last significantly longer than the tan lines you would have picked up on the beach had you chosen the traditional spring break instead.
JoAnna Haugen (joannahaugen.com) worked in a grocery store, at a coffee stand and in numerous restaurants to save money for and pay her way through college. Now she interviews others as a freelance writer.