Welcome to what college students once called Alternative Spring Break — which, these days, is not so alternative and really isn't much of a break.
Though there may be no shortage of vacationing young people at Daytona Beach or Panama City this week, some Florida college students are spending their time off clearing invasive-plant species from the Everglades, helping impoverished communities in West Virginia and rebuilding portions of New Orleans still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
"Alternative breaks are becoming the norm," said Micki Meyer, director of community engagement at Rollins College.
"Four years ago at Rollins, we had one alternative-break group to Atlanta with about seven students," said she said. "This year, we have five trips, including one that's international, with about 80 students and staff. And we still had over 20 students we had to turn away."
At the Atlanta-based nonprofit Break Away, which helps universities develop an alternative-break program, surveys show the number of participants at member campuses has increased by at least 10 percent each year since 2008.
And that's just for spring. Many colleges, including Rollins, now have community-service trips in the fall, during winter and summer breaks, and even on weekends.
"You get so much out of it," said 19-year-old Bethany Eriksen, a Rollins sophomore who has taken four so-called "immersion" trips and is leading one this week in the Florida Keys. There, the environmental-studies major will be working on coral-reef protection and restoration.
"I knew when I came here that I was interested in the environment, and I suppose I could just read books about it," she said. "But to go there and see the issues firsthand and talk to the people who are impacted by it, I think it really solidifies that this is what I want to do with my life. … Actually, I never want to stop doing immersion learning."
Rollins, with its emphasis on nurturing a sense of global citizenship among its students, has been one of the forerunners in alternative-break programs. But it is hardly alone.
At the University of Central Florida, for instance, some version of an alternative-break program has existed for at least a decade, though in recent years the growth has mushroomed. This year, the college limited the program to 250 students and organized 16 trips, including its first international venture: to an organic-coffee plantation in Costa Rica.
"I really wanted to get that one-on-one experience with another culture," said 22-year-old Logan Butler, a senior. "Because we'll be living with a host family — a mom, a dad and three kids — there's an opportunity to really see what their life is like and how they view Americans."
Butler, who hopes to become a minister, already has kayaked through South Florida mangroves to haul out trash, worked at a wildlife-rehabilitation center in the Keys and served on a medical mission to Honduras on his own.
"I think the experience changes how you look at life," he said.
That's precisely why many universities, including Rollins and UCF, subsidize the cost of the trips for their students, charging at most a "participant fee" of roughly $150 to $300.
"This is not about feel-good service work," Meyer said. "As educators, if we only get people involved in things that feel good, we have not done our job … . It's when you straddle the line of your discomfort zone that true learning happens — and that's when social change happens. This is shaking students up so they can't view everything the same way."
Central Florida students sometimes venture into dangerous territory on such trips, whether they're on gang turf in Chicago or tagging sharks so researchers can track their dwindling populations. And schools elsewhere have had students injured or even die while volunteering out of town.
But officials who organize such trips say safety is a top priority, and Rollins and UCF routinely send along faculty members to supervise. They also have student leaders who undergo special training beforehand.
And most involved agree demand is likely to build. Students often enter college these days with some track record of volunteerism, and many find the experience compelling.
"There have been numerous studies that show students of this generation are less inclined to participate the way previous generations did — through a political movement," said Kevin Winchell, assistant director of community engagement at Stetson University in DeLand. "They're much more likely to want direct engagement. They want to be hands-on."
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