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Alternative Spring Breaks teach more than service

Shiwani Bisht '16, left, Brittney Valdez '19, Meghan McKenzie '19 and Darshna Anigol '19 at the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) in New York City.

Instead of venturing to a beach or other popular vacation destination during spring break, more than 120 Cornell Alternative Breaks students traveled the East coast to volunteer with service agencies.

Student-led teams took part in weeklong community service projects directed by regional community partners. The students worked at women's shelters, homeless and LGBTQ residences, therapeutic riding centers and youth substance-abuse centers, and led workshops geared for populations the agencies serve.

Alternative Breaks is a student-run program of the Cornell Public Service Center (PSC) that promotes social awareness, enhanced personal growth and advocates lifelong social action with nonprofit agencies in 14 locations from New York City to Florida.

Students participated in a rigorous 12-week team building and training program to prepare for their trips and learn about issues confronting the communities they would work with. Students explored reflection, diversity and inclusion, risk management, reciprocity and direct service.

For New Settlement, a neighborhood revitalization, youth development and urban housing organization in the Bronx, the team read “The Lorax” and learned about a seed-planting project with a group of young students at the agency's after-school program to help encourage them to take an active role in revitalizing their neighborhood through gardening. The New Settlement team also participated in other community organizing and mobilization projects.

“Every year we are thrilled to have the Cornell students come and work because of their energy and enthusiasm,” said Alison Palmer, director at New Settlement. “They are very interested in the work, have amazing questions and engage with the new settlement community seamlessly.”

Alternative Breaks New York City Trip participants also attended a Network for Change alumni panel discussion. This year’s event featured panelists Shane Dunn '07, Shiri Sandler '05 and Renee Farkas, associate director, Public Service Center.

Farkas directs the Cornell Pre-Orientation Service Trip (POST) program, a 5-day service program similar to Alternative Breaks for incoming freshmen who work with Ithaca agencies on community service projects. Dunn and Sandler are past POST participants and team leaders who work in service fields and volunteer in their communities. Sandler, who was also an Alternative Breaks participant, trip leader and student board member said she uses the skills and experiences she gained working with the two programs daily in her job as the U.S. director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

Students on New York City trips also meet with other recent Cornell graduates and past Alternative Breaks participants who work in service fields or as community volunteers. Mike Bufano '09, an Alternative Breaks participant for three years who worksfor Google, told students about his recent volunteer trip to work with Syrian refugees in Greece and his work with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Tunisia Bristol '10, a past Alternative Breaks team leader and currently a science/special education teacher in New York City, advised students: “The one piece of advice I can give to you all about service is to not only open your eyes, but open your heart. As cheesy as that sounds, I mean it. Understand and acknowledge your privilege and hard work to realize there are people who will never have access to the luxuries you've experienced and then work even harder to show them that there are people who still care.”

More than 2,100 students have participated in Alternative Breaks since 1999.

Media Contact

Melissa Osgood