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Students expand their comfort zone for Alternative Spring Break

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

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published March 12, 2015

“I’m already a junior, and I don’t want to graduate without doing something out of the ordinary.”
Katherine Sierra, UB junior

Anyone throwing around stereotypes 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’ll spend the upcoming spring recess, and you’ll see their plans defy any predictions and conventional generalizations of college students spending too much time and money drinking and flaunting 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 (ASB).

The scenario for this alternative break is simple: Students give up their one week of freedom and recharge by helping others less fortunate than they, whether it’s 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 Schneider, a senior majoring in management information systems. “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 Sierra, a junior majoring in political science and legal studies. She originally had wanted to take part in the educational program in the Dominican Republic, where her family is from, but instead signed up for the Pine Ridge Reservation program in South Dakota, going to a part of the country she had never been to before.

“Why not?” she asked herself.

“I was raised in the Catholic faith and went to Catholic school all my life,” Sierra explains. “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,” she says.

“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, which coordinates the ASB programs, as well as other community service programs throughout the year, has placed about 75 students in such programs in the past 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 taking part in this program 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, Virginia. Volunteers on this trip will work with the international nonprofit 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 in 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 the Caribbean country. 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 discussing 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. Zelma Aminigo and 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 who spent previous ASBs in New York City, Buffalo and Cleveland. “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, who spent an alternative break in the wetlands of Louisiana. “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.”

Thoughts and observations from my Alternative Spring Break

As part of the Alternative Spring Break program at UB, I had the opportunity to spend time with the Oglala Lakota people at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the third-poorest county in the Unites States. It is sometimes referred to as Prisoner of War Camp #334. Unemployment is far higher than the national average: 80 to 90 percent of its people are unemployed. The suicide rate among teenagers is double the national average.

 

You do not have to leave your country to see extreme poverty.

 

Racism is also a huge problem surrounding the reservation. In January, 57 elementary school students ages 9-13 attended a hockey game as a reward for coming to school. They endured racial slurs from adult men. Men from the skybox above spilled beer on them and told them to “go back to the reservation.” And they were subjected to other vulgar statements.

 

The students from UB worked with Re-Member, a nonprofit organization whose members have dedicated their lives to helping the Lakota people. They do anything from building bunk beds for children to installing outhouses and skirting mobile homes. We helped with some of these activities as well.

 

Pine Ridge is a very complicated place with no easy answers. Social change cannot happen without awareness and knowledge. Shine a light on these invisible people. Learn the history between Americans and the Natives. There is no easy answer. The solution cannot come from one person.

 

Katherine Sierra