Students Dedicate Spring Break to Education and Service

Students on Alternative Break in Washington, D.C.
Students on Alternative Break in Washington, D.C.

From Florida to El Salvador to Jamaica and the District of Columbia, 85 George Mason University students dedicated their spring break to education and service as part of this year’s Alternative Break trips, organized through the Social Action and Integrative Learning (SAIL) program in New Century College.

This year, SAIL coordinated a total of seven trips (three international and four domestic) for graduate and undergraduate students to spend their spring break learning firsthand the social, environmental and economic challenges facing others around the world. While many of the trips included significant hours of on-site service, students interviewed explained that they received more than they gave.

Stuart McDonald is a graduate student in Mason's Social Justice and Human Rights concentration and works as SAIL’s Alternative Break coordinator. Since September, McDonald has worked with participating Mason students, staff and faculty to organize and prepare for their weeklong trips. Although the trips occurred in March, participants begin studying the social, political and in some cases environmental challenges facing their selected region six months before they begin packing.

McDonald explained, “We are part of the Break Away national organization model, which emphasizes education, skills training and reflection. We see these trips as a year-long commitment, and each group works together to set educational goals that complement each particular trip.”

Some trips such as those to Jamaica and Guatemala emphasized education and social rights, and Mason students assisted in local elementary schools for their week at site. Other trips, including those to New Jersey and Washington DC explored issues of social justice and human rights, especially for those living with HIV/AIDS. The trip to Florida focused on regional environmental concerns. Regardless of the trip’s focus, all students practiced teamwork and perseverance in the face of daily challenges.

Patty Mathison directs Mason’s SAIL program and also served as the learning partner for the group that travelled to Jamaica. She said, “We worked in the classrooms with elementary students all week. It was pretty challenging because the kids all had lots of energy. I was very impressed that our Mason students were creative and could think of different strategies to keep the students focused.”

On the Jamaica trip, Ateeb Asim a psychology and art major described his individual work helping a young boy named Jayden learn the alphabet. By the end of the week, the two formed a strong bond that Asim won’t forget. He said, “On our second-to-last day together, I asked Jayden to write his name for homework and show me at our last lesson. Jayden went home, wrote his name, the entire alphabet and ‘I love you.’”

Asim said, “During the week, we were constantly evaluating what our purpose was and what we could actually do in a week. More than anything, we provided emotional support and affection to our students…I feel so grateful for what they taught me. More than ever, I appreciate the power and impact of an education…and this reaffirmed my passion for service and my passion for working with kids.”

McDonald also emphasized that a strong component of the trips was the participants’ translation of what they experienced during their week to their lives as Mason students.

McDonald said, “We want to consider how can we carry this experience back. What is our action plan? What can we reasonably do in Northern Virginia to continue to engage with this issue? How can this experience really kick start our action in the future?”

From her experience on the DC-based trip working with the homeless and those with HIV/AIDS, Mary Wayland, an integrative studies major, found inspiration from the people they served as well as the leaders who have built their personal and professional lives around service.

She said, “All our partner organizations were started by one person who wanted to make a change. They took the risks, wrote the grants and are now making a difference in the community. I learned a lot about how one person working very hard can make a difference.”

Alternative Break in Florida 2016
Students on the Ecosystem Restoration spring break trip in Stuart, Florida.
Credit: Mimi Fuerst

Caroline Kittle, an integrative studies major, participated in the trip to Florida, which included her first experience camping and long days removing invasive species, restoring wetlands and building an oyster reef. Kittle found inspiration in the energy of her peers and the knowledge and professionalism of the group’s learning partner Charles Coates, BA Environmental and Sustainability Studies '14, and community partner Mike Yustin, environmental resource specialist with Martin County, Florida.

Kittle said, “They kept the energy going, always had level heads and kept us organized…On the last day, we went back to the beach where we first started working. We could see dolphins and birds. It was totally peaceful and serene… I would go back in a heartbeat.”