By Oreoluwa Obayan
When most students think of spring break, they tend to imagine relaxing on the beach, binge-watching Netflix on the couch or a nice little getaway from their college campuses and 11:59 p.m. homework deadlines. However, for the past few years, students at the University of North Texas have chosen an alternative method by volunteering to improve the lives of others and the communities around them.
The Alternative Service Breaks program offered by the Center for Leadership and Service allows students to serve communities in a significant way. The program raises awareness for different social issues through a variety of week-long service trips during winter and spring break.
The importance of the program
Latrice Moore, a leadership coordinator for the Center for Leadership and Service, is in charge of trip logistics and budget matters for the program. She served as an adviser for the Peppers Ranch Foster Care Community trip in Guthrie, Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation Early Childhood Unit in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. During both of the trips, she was in charge of driving to the service sites, paying for meals or groceries and helping to lead reflection activities where students debrief their experiences for the day.
“As an adviser, my role was to help guide participants through the experience and engage students in the learning interactions on the trip,” Moore said. “My engagement often demonstrated to students what mindset they should have on the trip and how to be open-minded to the experience.”
Alternative Service Breaks are becoming a growing trend for college students. Moore believes students are more aware of what is going on in the world and genuinely want to make a difference.
“Students are becoming more global,” Moore said. “No longer are they waiting around to allow someone else to do the work of trying to create social positive change. They are putting in the work to be the change that they want to see in the world.”
Joey Harmon, a graduate assistant for the service breaks program, joined the Center for Leadership and Service department in May 2019. Harmon fell in love with the concept of the program and how it can be beneficial for college students and the community partners they serve.
“The program is very intentional about proper social issue education, immersing yourself within your trip and reflecting on it when you return from service,” Harmon said. “This is an important educational aspect for students beyond their classrooms. The real world can teach you ten times more than any textbook can.”
He believes that the overall goal of the service breaks program is for students to obtain lifelong leadership and service development skills.
“The idea is that students take what they learned during their week of service and try to tackle issues in their own communities,” Harmon said.
The impact on students
Daniel Ayodele, a pre-med biomedical engineering senior, has attended three trips during his time at UNT. His first experience with the program was in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he volunteered with the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. During his time there, he kept kids occupied in the waiting room between appointments by coloring or playing games with them. Ayodele also helped health administrators file paperwork.
“I decided to go on this trip because I wanted to know more about the healthcare system in the U.S.,” Ayodele said. “The experience taught me that there are not many primary care physicians in rural parts of America. I believe it is so important to get involved with these issues and know about them because it can potentially affect your friends and the community around you.”
The following winter break, he visited Clarkston, Georgia, where he volunteered with Something New, an organization that works with refugees. Ayodele spent his time in a school with predominantly refugee children and helped them with their reading comprehension. He was also able to have dinner with a family who had just migrated from Malaysia and hear their life stories.
“This was the most informative experience for me because it reinforced how much my parents have worked hard to be in this country,” Ayodele said. “My parents are from Nigeria and growing up I saw how they struggled to make a home here in America for my siblings and I. The trip showed me that I want to work with people who have struggles and have different backgrounds from me.”
During his third trip the following spring break, he served at the Wings for Life International in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Throughout the week, he toured a rehab center for juveniles struggling with drug addictions and was able to hear from the people at the center. His time with this organization was the most memorable for him because he served as a site leader for the justice system trip.
Another UNT student impacted by this program is Ruth Thunderhawk, a human development and family science junior. She attended her first trip in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she volunteered with the Cherokee Nation Early Head Start program. During her time there, she helped the teachers with classroom activities and engaged in community service projects at different Head Start centers.
“Along with my group, I participated in different acts of service throughout the week,” Thunderhawk said. “I helped tidy up the classrooms, make decorations for the teachers to hang up and clean up the sticks and leaves at other centers. These were small actions that the staff weren’t able to do on a daily basis, so we were able to help them out by doing these tasks for them.”
Growing up as a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota tribe, Thunderhawk was excited to see that Native American children’s education was offered as a social issue trip.
“As a Native American woman myself, I wanted to learn about other tribes,” Thunderhawk said. “I thought it was really amazing how the Cherokee Nation implemented the culture and the language into their curriculum. The fact that they were able to take the extra step to teach the language so it doesn’t die out will be extremely beneficial going forward.”
She said that participating in the service breaks program gave her the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself.
“Going on these trips helped me gain more of a perspective,” Thunderhawk said. “Now I am able to come back to UNT with the information that I have learned and bring more awareness to these social issues.”
The applications for 2019-2020 Alternative Service Breaks program are now available on the UNT Center for Leadership and Service website. The trips will be held during winter break from Jan. 4-11 and spring break from March 7-14.
Featured Image: Students work on various service projects organized by the Alternative Service Break program. Image courtesy of the UNT Center for Leadership and Service