UB students expand their comfort zone for Alternative Spring Break

UB students working with Dominican students

UB students help Dominican students at an English day camp held during a 2013 Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic.

Release Date: March 13, 2015

“I’m already a junior, and I don’t want to graduate without doing something out of the ordinary. This is a unique opportunity to go to a different state and learn about people who don’t live like us.”
Katherine Sierra, a junior majoring in political science and legal studies

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Anyone throwing stereotypes around about University at Buffalo students and Spring Break has not met Boma Zelma Aminigo, Kyle Schneider, Victoria Robbins or Katherine Sierra. Ask them how they will spend the upcoming spring recess, approaching as quickly as the long-awaited March thaw.

Their plans defy any predictions and conventional generalizations of college students spending too much money drinking and flouting rules.

These four students – along with scores of others – are among the UB undergraduates who will spend their week off taking part in what has come to be known as Alternative Spring Break. While many students plan the conventional program of what UB’s student newspaper The Spectrum this week has called “Beachfront debauchery,” for others, it’s more like this:

Give up your one week of freedom and recharge by – get this – helping others less fortunate than they, whether it be in their own Western New York backyard or far away from familiar surroundings in exotic and remote territory.

“The reason I originally signed up for Alternative Break was to make an impact where it was needed most,” says Kyle Schneider, a senior in UB’s Department of Environmental Studies. “I have returned for my second trip with the program in order to keep making a difference and help lead others in a similar direction.”

“Personally, I always like to volunteer,” says Katherine Sierra, a junior majoring in political science and legal studies. Sierra wanted to take part in the educational program in the Dominican Republic where her family is from. She ended signing up for the Oglala Lakota Nation’s Pine Ridge Reservation program in South Dakota instead, going to a place in the country she had never been to before.

“Why not?” she told herself.

“I was raised in the Catholic faith and went to Catholic school all my life,” Sierra says. “They always encouraged me to volunteer. It was almost a way of life. I can always lounge around. It makes me feel good to know I’m helping someone else. I’m already a junior, and I don’t want to graduate without doing something out of the ordinary. This is a unique opportunity to go to a different state and learn about people who don’t live like us. I think it will be fun, and eventually, it will enrich me.”

UB’s Office of Student Engagement, the department that coordinates the campus’ Alternative Spring Break programs as well as other similar programs throughout the year, has placed about 75 students in the last 12 months. Outside of a small subsidy provided by the Office of Student Engagement, the students incur the cost of their trips.

“I strongly believe Alternative Spring Break Programs are important because they have a life-changing impact on our students,” says Phyllis Floro, director of the Office of Student Engagement.

“These programs provide students with the unique opportunity to engage outside the classroom in meaningful community service.  More importantly, it encourages personal reflection that helps them connect to their academics, build community and long-lasting relationships with their peers, and strengthen their self-identity and empathy for others.”

Floro says she feels “fortunate” to watch how these unconventional trips lead to personal growth among the UB students, along with helping the different communities accepting guests.  And true to her word, Floro’s office has provided a wide range of options for students. If this semester’s trips were compiled in a travel brochure, the choices would compete with more traditional opportunities available for Spring Break.

·        Give Where You Live in Buffalo. While staying in Buffalo, students participating in this trip will explore a variety of social issues affecting the Buffalo area. Students will volunteer with various community organizations and get a broader sense of the city. The Office of Student Engagement hopes students will be left with an appreciation of the city where they live, along with a passion to continue to volunteer and make change in their own backyard.

·        Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville, Va. Volunteers on this trip will work with the international non-profit Habitat for Humanity to provide affordable housing for families in need. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville was founded in 1991 and works to create simple, decent, affordable housing in partnership with low-income families, volunteers and the communities of greater Charlottesville. Over the past two decades, this affiliate has built homes in partnership with more than 100 local low-income families.

·        Children’s’ Enrichment on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. Participants on this trip will join with Re-Member and the Lakota Children’s Enrichment Organization to work with the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.  Pine Ridge is a community the United Nations has called one of the most marginalized and historically wronged indigenous communities in the world, a dubious distinction for a community located in the heartland of the world’s richest nation.

·        Educational Programs in the Dominican Republic. Working with Outreach360, students will help teach English to children in Santiago, DR. Students will live out Outreach 360’s vision (to transform the world in which every child is able to pursue a college degree or to be gainfully employed upon reaching adulthood, enabling them to live a life of choice) while learning about the history of the Dominican Republic, exploring the culture and discuss what it really means to "make change" happen in a community.

If past experiences are any indication, this semester’s lineup of Alternative Spring Break trips will make the same impression as past ones. Boma Zelma Aminigo and Victoria Robbins both return this year as student team leaders after taking part last year’s programs.

“The alternative break trips have enabled me to learn about others and myself while working with diverse groups of people,” says Zelma Aminigo, a senior biological sciences major. “I was able to make positive contributions to the lives of those in need.”

Robbins, a senior psychology major, returns for another Spring Break tour for similar reasons. It’s about other people, she says, but that eventually leads you back to yourself.

“I believe it is our civic duty to give back to underserved communities through various service projects, and most importantly, by empowering the residents,” says Robbins. “I am very much looking forward to working with students in the Dominican Republic and learning the parallels that exist between Monte Cristi and Buffalo.”

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