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Xavier Magazine | March 29, 2017

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Getting a Big Break

Getting a Big Break
By Michael Shaw

Students gain more than they give on Alternative Breaks trips

To the “Where the Boys Are” generation, the words Anheuser Busch might first come to mind when associating spring break with the letters A and B. But since 2001, Alternative Breaks (or AB) has offered Xavier students a get-away that gives back and leaves a greater impression than just a nice tan.

A and B are also the initials of Amanda Burns, current chair of Xavier’s Alternative Breaks executive board. One of the more memorable benefits of her four-year association with AB has been the opportunity to make new acquaintances—even furry ones. In one case—bison. “There were bison in our camp site that chased us.”

The camp—Catalina Island, about 50 miles offshore from Los Angeles—is perhaps better known as an upscale vacation destination from the golden age of Hollywood. But it’s also the home of a 42,000-acre wilderness preserve. The official mission of this specific alternative break: conservation of eco-systems, trail maintenance and beach clean-up. In other words, a lot of hard work.

“There are bison on the island because they were brought in for a movie set and just left there,” she says. It happened in 1924, as these were props from a silent film, now left as a reminder of the impact careless actions can have on an ecosystem. “Bison can’t swim, they just roam the island.”  She does remember the adventure had a happy ending; “It just walked away”.

What shows no sign of going away any time soon is Xavier’s Alternative Breaks program. Now in its 14th year, AB has grown from about 30 students setting out on three impromptu-organized trips to 21 trips involving over 260 students.AltBreaks2

While the mission is lofty—“to empower and challenge all involved understanding the relationship with the global community through direct service, education, and reflection, while encouraging personal growth, social awareness, and active citizenship”—the reality is quite simple: Get out of your comfort zone and appreciate the experience.

Those experiences over the years are as varied as humanity and often not as pleasant as communing with nature—gang prevention, immigration and poverty—in locations from Cincinnati to the Ukraine. AB has also been a robustly independent organization, entirely student-run. In 2007, staff and faculty members joined the trips to comply with Xavier’s risk management and insurance. These non-students are officially considered “trip participants,” while the team is led by two trained students.

“We take a lot of pride in being entirely student-run,” Burns says. Bringing professors along for spring break seemed a bit counter-intuitive in the beginning, but it has slowly evolved into an additional resource and may even lead to the addition of an academic component some day.

“We’re still trying to figure out how that dynamic would fit into coursework and academic credit,” Burns says.

So while the challenges an alternative breaker faces can be daunting, they are probably statistically safer than the traditional Daytona Beach bacchanal.

“We have had some unfortunate encounters between hammers and thumbs while working,” she recalls.

But bumps, bruises and bison aside, this alternative version of spring break may not be all about a week at the beach, but students do return changed in ways they least expected. It’s also not all about “doing good” but learning to appreciate that life is lived at many levels. And what surprised Burns the most in her four years of Alternative Breaks was helping herself along the way.

“It’s not necessarily that I’m going to go help you, but I needed to change the way I was,” she says.

Visit Xavier’s Alternative Breaks page to view more photos and learn more about the program.

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