Students reflect on alternate spring break experiences

By Mtali Banda

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For some University of Massachusetts students, alternative spring break programs provide opportunities to fill the week off from class with volunteer work focused on community strengthening and social justice.

The Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program at UMass features annual spring break trips across the country which center around social issues. Many UMass trips, both affiliated and unaffiliated with ASB, are components of semester-long courses.

The 2013 ASB syllabus makes clear that trips are “not a vacation” and “unlike mainstream spring break, ASB is substance-free,” with substance use on trips resulting in a failing grade.

This year, the Civic Interfaith Alliance, an ASB group consisting of two teams of nine members, traveled to Slidell, La., to help finish rebuilding homes devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, including flooring, painting and plumbing work.

Participants of the Interfaith trip were required to contribute at least $150 to the cost of the trip and cover their own travel expenses from Louisiana, as well as “participate fully in the physical and communal work of house-building, and in the spiritual and intellectual activity of interfaith exploration,” its application stated. The trip is designed as a two-credit independent study.

“It was the best week of my life, because I was able to meet amazing people,” said UMass biology student Lauren Lynde, who traveled to Louisiana with Interfaith.

Psychology and public heath major Samuel Fountain also went on the Interfaith trip and said he found it to be “an amazing experience.

 “Other than meeting new people, it was cool having a positive experience on someone’s life. Getting to hear their story,” he said.

Another UMass program,Grassroots Community Organizing (GCO)  hosted five separate trips to Worcester, Springfield and Boston, as well as Portland, Maine, and Fredericksburg, Va.

The cost of the trip was $200 per student, according to its application. Some travel expenses were subsidized by the University and supplemented by the UMass Alliance for Community Transformation.

GCO is a five-credit honors course offered through the UMass anthropology department. A major component to the class is that all the students participate in an alternate spring break dedicated to working in economically-disadvantaged communities and focusing on “the ways that communities use local knowledge and other local assets to combat poverty and political disenfranchisement,” according to the GCO website.

 “One thing that’s good is the class is attached, so we were prepared,” said GCO participant Johannes Raatz, an economics and social thought and political economy student.

Raatz said his team went to Roxbury, Boston and worked on the “T Riders’ Campaign,” a movement designed to “fight potential fare hikes in the MBTA.” His team slept on the floor of a local community center

“(MBTA officials) are proposing to close 30 lines and (raise) fares by one-third. This campaign was designed to make people aware and put pressure on state government to act,” Raatz added.

Raatz, who plans to spend his summer in Springfield doing social justice work similar to the work he did in Roxbury, said he “gained a sense of urgency” about particular social issues and is “bringing (a new perspective) back to campus.”

Fellow GCO participant and Smith College student Lucinda Klarich-Kahn traveled with a team to Fredericksburg, Va., to collaborate with a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called Virginia Organizing.

“They work in the community and empower individuals through addressing problems that affect them,” Klarich-Kahn said.

Both Raatz and Klarich-Kahn said they found engaging with the community became a personal experience.

 “[We were] not just providing a service to the community, but working alongside, taking their fight and making it our own,” said Raatz.

“I learned how to engage in a community I don’t normally identify without alienating myself or losing integrity,” said Klarich-Kahn. “[I was] developing cultural fluency … contextualizing my identity and my privileges within a framework I don’t normally engage in.”

Alternate spring break programs are offered annually through organizations such as ASB ( and the UMass Alliance for Community Transformation (

Chelsie Field contributed to this report.

Mtali Banda can be reached at [email protected].