Robert Ullman

Matthew Baer and a group of fellow students were staying in a rustic cabin on an island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks last year when a sudden windstorm cut out the power. They were miles away from civilization, working on environmental conservation projects with the National Park Service. Without lights or other modern comforts, the students felt slightly unnerved, as their effort was put on a different, somewhat unsteady, footing. Still, this power outage created one of Baer’s favorite memories from his Alternative Spring Break trip.

“What was amazing about this experience is that, in the end, the lack of power changed nothing,” says Baer (Col ’11). “Normally, a power outage would really affect us.” Rather than watch TV or surf the Internet, the students spent their free time playing cards and telling stories.

“The idea that normal college students could have this experience is really a testament to what ASB stands for and hopes to encourage,” Baer says.

Spring break—a time usually associated with sun-filled days spent lying poolside—has acquired new meaning thanks to the efforts of one of UVA’s largest student-run organizations. Alternative Spring Break enables students to engage in community service as well as travel to new locales, from Kenya to Trinidad to the Grand Canyon.

ASB, a nationwide organization, has grown at UVA from a mere three trips in 2003 to 60 domestic and international destinations during the spring, summer and winter breaks that involve 750 students. During ASB trips, students address community concerns such as environmental conservation, disaster relief, children’s education, health services and housing needs. Any UVA student can apply, and raising the necessary funds, which can range from $100 to $2,000 per trip, is up to each participant (some scholarships and grants are available).

Matt Dickey (Col ’10), president of ASB, says that the goal of each service trip is “to expose students to issues and inspire them to become service leaders in their own communities.” Indeed, many students return to Grounds with a greater commitment to civic volunteering; some even change their long-term career plans because of their experience.

What primarily effects this change is students’ involvement and interaction with the individuals in the communities they serve, and that often means overcoming language barriers. Carolyne Jones (Col ’10) spent two spring breaks tutoring sixth-grade children at a rural school in Jamaica. Their dialect posed a challenge as Jones tried to teach formal English for upcoming standardized tests.

One student named Jerron, who was “the tough guy and always getting into fights with his peers,” had a hard time paying attention to the lessons. Yet Jones worked with Jerron to overcome his language difficulties, and by the end of her week in Jamaica, Jerron wrote a thank-you note to her in English, saying he would never forget her lessons. Making this connection is something Jones will always remember. “I hope that we motivated him to think that education is important and worth his time,” she says.

Closer to home, in the Gulf Coast, students forged connections with members of the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Lucas Tyler (Col ’12) spent a week helping to rebuild homes in the area of St. Bernard’s Parish. After speaking at length with a woman whose neighborhood is still reeling from the effects of the storm, Tyler had a different sense of the storm’s aftermath. “Instead of sympathy, I felt a contagious happiness and sense of promise in the future of New Orleans,” he says.

ASB also forges bonds among the students. On one of her trips to Jamaica, Jones knew only one of the 36 UVA students boarding the flight. “It was sort of a scary thing to go to a foreign place without anyone you know, but you get to know the people in your group really well and really quickly,” she says.

After trips, students return to Grounds not only with a change in perspective and a widened circle of friends, but also a desire to continue serving through ASB. Lisa Keller (Col ’11) plans to lead a trip to Atlanta in March. “Each time I travel to a place for the first time and engage with people,” she says, “I leave longing to do more: to educate myself about the area, to raise awareness in others, and to seek justice for the situations I’ve seen.”