Friday, May 21, 2010

Florida Alternative Breaks: Lasting Learning Experiences through Service Immersion

by Jill Lingard & Maureen Cox

We shaped and painted PVC piping under the direction of Mayan guides while the shrill calls of howler monkeys echoed throughout a lush rainforest canopy.

Every woman in the village stood in the circle thanking us in their native Mayan tongue for our stove-building and then gave us each a brightly-colored cloth they had hand-woven and filled with flowers.

Both of the word pictures painted above describe international travel experiences from recent Florida Alternative Breaks trips. In both cases, academic advisors earned the privilege to accompany 14 UF students on a week of volunteer work and self discovery in a foreign country.

Florida Alternative Breaks (FAB) is a student-run service organization that is based in the Center for Leadership and Service in UF’s Division of Student Affairs. The group organizes themed community service trips during academic breaks throughout the year to areas within the US and internationally. Shorter trips span 3-day weekends (like the MLK holiday weekend in January); longer trips last a week (like over spring break).

Each FAB trip focuses on a social or environmental issue, and service learning activities are intentionally designed to immerse students in those issues firsthand. The rainforest scene described above came as part of a 2009 water conservation themed trip to the interior of Belize (above photo). Two teams of students on that trip constructed a grey water system and a solar water heater for a conservation and research station. The second scene comes from a 2010 trip to the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala, where the group’s focus was on poverty and development. Students broke into groups of 3-4 to build stoves for indigenous families in two small villages. The main lesson for the group was understanding the day-to-day realities of poverty and how empowering a community to make small changes can make big differences. Issues addressed on previous FAB trips have also included animal welfare, immigration law, homelessness, disaster recovery, HIV/AIDS, children’s issues, community health, marine life protection, and mental health.

Each FAB trip has two student site leaders, who undergo intensive training as they learn to organize virtually every aspect of their assigned trips. The site leaders really “own” their trips—they make all travel arrangements, find and secure housing accommodations, research their assigned issue, choose related volunteer agencies to work with, collaborate with agency personnel on specific service learning activities, and design meaningful reflections before, during, and after the trip to maximize students’ growth and learning about the social issue they’re immersed in, the culture impacted by it, and themselves.

Each year, three spring break FAB groups travel to international destinations, usually in the Caribbean or Central America. The international trips include a trip advisor, who is a UF faculty or staff member. The advisor’s travel expenses are paid for and their purpose is to provide support to students before, during, and after the trip—especially to the site leaders (as their focus is on taking care of everyone and everything else). If/when travel or other emergencies arise, it’s also helpful to have an adult advisor on hand to help students problem-solve. Advisor applications are usually due in October, with interviews and selection taking place in November.

As academic advisors, we probably all feel pretty lucky to work with the caliber of student UF attracts. Think about the kind of students who would choose meaningful service over leisure during one of their breaks from school. These are students who are eager to connect with the world at a level beyond classrooms and textbooks. They’re passionate about issues and want to play an active role in understanding and solving them. It’s not unusual to hear student participants report that they discovered their ‘life’s work’ on a FAB trip. A week spent with students like this leaves you with a serious infusion of hope for the future of our planet!

For more information on FAB trips and the application process for student participants and advisors, visit the FAB website. The authors of this article would also be delighted to field questions about their experiences.

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