Widgets Magazine

Reinventing Spring Break

Spring Break: these words bring to mind images of college students soaking up the sun on beaches or resting at home, recovering from a long and tiring winter quarter. Yet for the almost 200 Stanford students who participated in Alternative Spring Break (ASB) this year, the week would be spent learning about and experiencing public service.

ASB is a Stanford program affiliated with the Haas Center for Public Service that allows students to go to various parts of the country on service and service-learning trips. This year’s ASB program had a total of 17 trips with topics ranging from veteran’s health care to education reform in New York to food issues in the Bay Area to the California prison system, all of which exposed students to a variety of social and cultural issues through education as well as hands-on service.

The Social Entrepreneurship group, one of 17 groups participating in the Alternative Spring Break program, visited businesses in the Bay Area dedicated to enacting positive social change (Courtesy of Tara Gu).

The Stanford ASB program is part of a national alternative break organization called Break Away. But what makes Stanford’s program so unique is that it is designed to educate and teach students about social issues rather than just send them on service trips.

“Our trips have evolved into more of education immersion experiences versus traditional hands-on service experiences,” said ASB faculty advisor Jon McConnell. “There are still some service components built into the course of the week, but it’s more comprehensive and looks at social issues from a multitude of perspectives.”

The education immersion portion of the trip started before spring break even started. Students started gearing up for ASB with a one-unit informative course during winter quarter, through which they gained an in-depth understanding of their topics.

Having completed the more formal classroom portion of the program, students then headed to locations across the country where they began their service-learning projects. There, they met both with those impacted by the social issues as well as those with the power to help alleviate the problems.

Christian Smith ’12 traveled to New York City to explore the education system, where his ASB group took a hands-on approach to dealing with education reform by visiting several public schools and charter schools. The “Growing Creativity: Education Reform in New York City and Beyond” ASB group partnered with the Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school) to explore bringing design thinking and creativity to the education system.

In addition to working with students, Smith and his fellow Stanford students visited universities where they talked about design thinking in education reform and explored a new way of thinking called constructivist education, which focuses on creativity as a means of education reform.

“This design thinking process fits in with the constructivist education model because you’re harnessing creativity that we believe is fundamentally in every student,” Smith said. “If we can harness that creativity and use it in higher academic settings, then we can get results from students that don’t learn as well from traditional education methods.”

ASB also exposed students to the wealth of opportunities that exist in public service, which for some, such as Namir Shah ’14, helped reshape their career goals.

Shah, who went on a trip that explored women’s health and health policy, described how he was “surprised by how many ways there are to get involved in public policy and health policy than just being an elected politician or a doctor.”

Despite the differences in subject matter and location, several themes remain common throughout the ASB trips. First of all, it’s impossible to speak to students about their ASB experience without hearing about the friendships they formed.

Alexandra Rieger ’14, who began the “Social Entrepreneurship in the Bay Area” trip expecting to learn more about the various startups in the Bay Area and possibly make a few contacts, was surprised by how much she bonded with her peers.

“It was absolutely wonderful to begin the journey with really wonderful individuals and leave as close friends over such a short amount of time,” Rieger said.

Another common factor in every group was the hard work and dedication of the trip leaders. Each group had two trip leaders that were recruited during spring quarter of the previous year. These leaders proposed their own topics, participated in training during fall quarter and organized the entire trip.

“What our program does well is that it brings together student leaders from all over campus with very diverse interests and backgrounds to design a very intensive experience around their topic,” said Minh Dan Vuong ’11, executive director of the program. “What unifies all 17 trips is this passion for engaging students and promoting service and service-learning.”

Many students were motivated to become leaders as a result of their own ASB trips or personal experiences related to their topic. Andy Nguyen ‘12, for example, was motivated to lead a trip covering women’s health and health policy this year because of his experience in a human biology class about women’s health as well as an internship that exposed him to state legislative advocacy.

He described the final reflection his group had at the end of the program as one of his favorite moments of the trip.

“I liked finding out what everyone learned on the trip because I’m really passionate about women’s health and health policy, and it was exciting to see how much people had learned over the duration of the directed reading in winter quarter and over the course of the trip,” Nguyen said.

Next year, perhaps students inspired by their recent ASB experiences will continue the cycle, becoming the next set of ASB leaders and encouraging other students to trade in their week-long sunbath in Mexico for new perspectives, a group of close friends and a passion for public service.

  • coraharper

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  • Christian

    Great article. Nishant Matthew and Tianay Pulphus did an excellent job planning and leading the education reform ASB trip. The ASB program rocks, and the education trip to the NYC metro makes for a fantastic perennial expedition for Stanford students interested in creative education reform.

  • Tianay

    @Christian: Thanks, man. We enjoyed having you on the trip and appreciated your help!

    @Everyone else: VOTE ASB FOR SPECIAL FEES so this wonderful program can continue. 🙂