An Alternative Spring Break participant spends time with children in the community

Alternative Spring Break Provides Life-Changing Experiences for Carleton Students

By Sarah Togman

Banff. Ecuador. Guatemala. New York. Nicaragua. Louisiana.

Some pretty impressive travel destinations for Carleton University students on their February winter break.

But they weren’t on holiday.

Carleton has welcomed back staff and students who participated in the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. Co-ordinated by the Student Experience Office, the program gives students an opportunity to travel nationally and internationally while doing meaningful community service work. The program ran from Feb. 20 to 24.

“All of our programs are based on the community service learning model. which has three main components,” said Taylor Monk, ASB’s program co-ordinator. “Reflection, learning and service. We emphasize the reflection because if you are actively thinking about what you are doing, you can get more out of the experience.”

Although Monk is usually behind the scenes, this year she decided to participate as a trip adviser in Guatemala.

Coming Full Circle

“I’ve been involved with ASB in different capacities for about five years,’’ she said. “My first trip as a participant was to Guatemala, so I thought it would be interesting to come full circle and return to Guatemala.”

This year, students visited a community of about 800 people in the mountains called Aldea de los Angeles. They worked side-by-side with welcoming, appreciative members of the community to build a sports complex for the local school.

Each ASB trip had its own specific service goals and tasks, but they centred around three main themes – access to clean water, conservation and access to education.

“The biggest takeaway from my experience,” said Lia Pizarro a third-year student and ASB veteran, “was understanding just how important history and culture are in the context of development and community service learning.”

Being Inspired by the Community

Pizarro had her first experience with ASB last February. She travelled to Nicaragua and fell in love with Central American culture, community and  children. This year, she was a trip leader in Guatemala and continued to be inspired by the community and the students working with her.

“We were constructing a sports court, not just so children had a place to play, but a safe environment where they could learn from one another . . .  and grow as individuals” she said.

Students from different areas of study, faculty and programs are grouped together on trips to foster new and interesting conversation and a more well-rounded, complex experience. Participants are asked to meld concepts taught in class, such as critical thinking and different methods of research, into their self-reflection.

Kuukua Gyan-Tawiah spent her alternative spring break in New York.

“My team and I spent a week working on a house that was destroyed by hurricane Sandy,’’ said Gyan-Tawish. “I had the pleasure of working with 10 people, and teamwork and communication was very effective among us.”

A Unique Experience

Gyan-Tawiah explained that getting a first-hand look at the community and the people affected by the tragedy was a unique experience.

“This trip was such an eye-opener of how good our lives are, because none of us had ever experienced a natural disaster.’’

Along with self-reflection and student experiences, the ASB program emphasizes a reciprocal relationship between its students and its organizational partners.

“Everything we are doing is not our idea, it directly (addresses) the needs of the communities we are working for,” said Monk. “They ultimately know what they need, the most so it creates a mutually beneficial relationship.”

The Student Experience Office hopes the organizations they work with are just as inspired by the experience as the students.

“This trip was truly a blessing,” said Pizarro. “And a fantastic way of exploring the world in a unique and engaging way.”