Alternative Breaks gives new perspective to vacation

GVL / Courtesy - GVSU Staff Directory
Valerie Guzman

GVL / Courtesy – GVSU Staff Directory Valerie Guzman

Ben Glick

With December just around the corner, many Grand Valley State University students have already made plans to go home or on vacation for winter break, but others have something different in mind.

Alternative Breaks has been operating on the GVSU campus since 1991 and offers students an opportunity to spend a week-long break in winter, spring or summer volunteering for social and environmental causes around the country.

Trips are divided into two categories, national trips which cost $250 and regional trips at $150. Regional trips go within a four-hour driving distance and national trips go within a 24-hour driving distance.

This year, there are 15 trips planned for the spring, five for winter and two for summer.

“It’s just to promote active citizenship in college students,” said Jordyn Lawton, vice president of Alternative Breaks.

Alternative Breaks is a local chapter of the national organization Breakaway, an initiative that promotes social and environmental change across the country through volunteering.

Alternative Breaks, though, is different from conventional volunteer activates, Lawton said.

“When you go on the trips, basically what happens is you go with people you don’t know, we place you on strategically important trips and we don’t tell you the location until you pick your trip topic,” she said.

Topics include issues on hunger and homelessness, park preservation, HIV/AIDS awareness and Native American culture.

Lawton said that Alternative Breaks is an instrument to enact social change, one that is crucial for college students to get involved in.

“As college students, you know they always say we’re the generation that can change the world,” she said. “People want to see things change, they don’t want to see these issues continuing on…We all feel as college students that if we’re willing and able, then there’s not really a reason we shouldn’t be helping others, you know going out and making a difference in any small way, or any big way, that we can.

Caitlin Wood, president of Alternative Breaks, shared this perspective.

“I think it’s important for college students to do it because it’s like we’re about to go into the real world, so I feel like it’s important for us to gain this knowledge now so that we can carry it on throughout our lives,” Wood said.

She added that since many of the issues Alternative Breaks tries to address are very complex, it is easier to take on at a human scale.

“Instead of us just trying to fix hunger and homelessness, it’s us trying to assist the people to get out of their situations,” she said. “Just trying to help them do it themselves, not going into their community and situations and trying to fix it for them, but just assisting them so they can do it themselves.”

Enacting that change though is dependent on motivating and educating students and their communities to making it a reality.

“(The purpose of) Breakaway…is to bring social change to all communities,” Wood said. “So I guess the social change would be like the awareness, the educating and learning about different circumstances and issues. Not necessarily trying to fix them, but trying to assist them.”

Alternative Breaks isn’t, however, all about self-sacrifice and obligation to nebulous ideals.

“A lot of people just really like the sense of fulfillment that it gives them, and it makes them feel like they’re doing something to promote a positive change,” Lawton said.

For students who don’t want to commit to week-long outings into the unknown, Alternative Breaks also offers Service Saturdays, free of charge, for students interested in volunteering for activities in the Grand Rapids area.

“Even if they’re not interested in doing an actual Alternative Break, they’re more than welcome to come out,” Lawton said.

The deadline for the winter and spring applications for Alternative Breaks is Nov. 14, and the organization is still looking for volunteers.

For more information on Alternative Breaks, visit their Orgsync page at

[email protected]