Spring break may bring to mind thoughts of wild beach parties or relaxing staycations—but at Northeastern Illinois University, the annual week with no classes can be so much more. For the past 10 years, students have been using the time to immerse themselves in the service of others through a program called Alternative Spring Break (ASB).
About 300 students have participated in ASB over the past decade, traveling to locations as close as Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and as far away as Guatemala.
“It’s not necessarily about building a house and having it be done,” Assistant Director of Student Leadership Development Rae Joyce Baguilat said. “It’s about questioning why there is housing insecurity and things of that nature and how we can help in the future.”
Veronica Rodriguez, director of Student Leadership Development, started Northeastern’s Alternative Spring Break program in 2009. On that first trip, Rodriguez took 10 students to New Mexico and Texas to examine border and immigration issues. For the past four years, Baguilat has organized the trips with Rodriguez. To mark the program’s 10-year anniversary, Northeastern is inviting past participants back for a reunion on March 28.
“It will be an opportunity to reconnect,” Rodriguez said. “It will be exciting because we’ll get to find out how, all these years later, if the trips still resonate with them and what kind of impact it had on them.”
This year, students are visiting Clarkston, Ga., to learn about refugee resettlement and education; Washington, D.C., to investigate hunger and homelessness; Tucson, Ariz., to delve into immigration and border issues; and Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to gain an understanding of the preservation of the area’s environment and people. In addition to the trips over spring break, this school year Student Leadership Development added an Alternative Fall Break, in which students were able to visit La Casa de Amistad in South Bend, Ind., where participants learned how the organization empowers the Latino/Hispanic community by providing educational, cultural and advocacy services in a welcoming, bilingual environment.
ASB trips are not unique to Northeastern, but they do tend to be more immersive than at other universities, Baguilat said. Participants are required to study the places they will go and learn about the cultures of people they will work with long before they leave for their trips.
Rodriguez and Baguilat have seen how this immersive process inspires students because they feel more deeply connected to the causes they are exploring.
One such instance occurred when a group of students went to Maryville, Tenn., to work with a Cherokee family in the Appalachian Mountains. The students were there to help clear the flora and fauna that are hazardous to the area to create safe trails. Unfortunately, even though other groups had also been to the area to help prior to Northeastern’s arrival, the project was too big to complete over the course of the week. In the spirit of the program, some of the students came up with a new plan.
“A bunch of them just went back in the summer by themselves,” Baguilat said. “They drove back. They didn’t ask for any money from us. They just went back to visit with the family and see what they could do to help at that time.”
About 100 students apply for ASB each year, but space allows for only 10 per destination. A Northeastern faculty or staff member accompanies students on trips and is generally responsible for driving participants from campus to the trip and back. Some students also take turns driving.
Any Northeastern student in good standing is eligible to apply for trips. Once applications are reviewed, students are invited to an interview session with Rodriguez, Baguilat and the Student Trip Leaders, who are pre-selected by Baguilat and Rodriguez based on the reviews and recommendations of the staff members of the previous year’s trips. The students chosen for trips have to put down a deposit to show they’re committed. The rest of the cost is made up through individual and group fundraising efforts such as bake sales. Upon returning to Northeastern, participants are required to give presentations to the University about what they’ve learned. This year, post-ASB presentations will take place at the anniversary reunion.
Rodriguez and Baguilat rely on past participants to step into the role of Student Trip Leader to mentor first-time ASB participants and guide nightly reflections, in which students discuss the events of the day and journal about their experiences. This is done so participants have time to decompress from the day, as many trips can be mentally and physically draining.
During the nightly sessions, students also decide how they want to spend money they have raised to make a more lasting impact on the community they’re serving. For example, one trip left money with a school to buy classroom materials and a changing table for the children they serve. This also helps hone the leadership skills of the Student Trip Leaders, as the faculty and staff members are encouraged to let the leaders engage with their peers, moderate discussions and act as peer mediators, if necessary.
Fatima Siddiqua attended trips as a participant to Memphis, Tenn., to understand civil rights and Washington, D.C., to learn about hunger and homelessness.
“My sister, when she was at Northeastern, went on an Oklahoma trip,” said Siddiqua, a junior Political Science major. “She’s the one that told me, ‘You should totally do ASB,’ and I’m so glad I did.”
This year, Siddiqua will step into the role of Student Trip Leader for the trip to Clarkston.
“A lot of students at NEIU are commuter students,” Siddiqua said. “They’re also students who haven’t had the chance to go out of Chicago for whatever reason it is. This gives the chance for them to not only go to other places, but to really immerse themselves in those places and then you can draw comparisons.”
ASB is often an entry point—or “gateway event,” as Rodriguez calls it—for students to become more involved in leadership roles on campus.
“They join URO (Undocumented, Resilient and Organized),” Baguiliat added. “They join student government. They join Greek organizations and all these different things. We also realize that there are students who want to get involved, but because of classes or work or something, sometimes they can’t. This time, of having spring break, if they can get off of work, they have the time to do this.”
ASB was exactly the introduction to student leadership that Siddiqua needed.
“In my freshman year I did ASB,” Siddiqua said. “Then I became a peer mentor and that’s how I got my internship. That gave me the confidence to become a senator in student government. Everything just opened up for me after ASB. This program has proven to help NEIU students and really enrich our experience.”
Former ASB participants, including past trip leaders, are encouraged to reach out to Veronica Rodriquez at email@example.com or (773) 442-4667 to RSVP for the reunion.
Top photo: Northeastern students on a 2017 Alternative Spring Break trip stand outside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., looking at the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.