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Her Study Abroad: Voluntourism During Alternative Breaks

I don’t know about you, but when I was looking at colleges I made sure every school on my short list could boast a high percentage of undergraduates studying abroad at some point during their four years. But it wasn’t just about how easy it would be for me to go abroad—it was also about the variety of places and programs the school offered. I knew that I wanted to travel, but I wasn’t quite sure where, so it was important to know that I would have a lot of options, and American University has not disappointed. AU not only offers traditional study abroad, but more unique opportunities as well, some of which I have explored in the other two articles in this series. In this article, I will be talking about a slightly different form of study abroad which actually allows you to complete most of the “studying” before you even leave the country: alternative breaks.

Alternative breaks, known simply as “Alt Breaks” here at AU, are unique in that they are global service trips run by undergraduates themselves. Instead of taking place during a single semester, Alt Breaks occur during winter, spring, and summer breaks—you pick when you want to go, then apply for the program that interests you the most.

But what exactly do you do when you sign up for an Alt Break? Well, that varies. Each program is different—different activities, different learning goals, different group leaders—but the end-goal for every program is the same: to learn about and experience different cultures while learning how to be a global citizen as well.

The nature of the program reflects this goal. Program participants meet with their Alt Break groups several times leading up to the actual trip. Each of the eight pre-departure training sessions focus on educating participants on the culture of the chosen destination, what they will be doing while they are away, and other important information. Participants also discuss why they are doing what they’ll be doing and the significance of the work.

For Nicole Vaughn, class of 2020, Alt Break meant spending time in El Progresso, Honduras, working with the Organization for Youth Empowerment (OYE), an NGO dedicated to helping students in the community develop essential life and leadership skills. While she was in Honduras, Vaughn helped by engaging in the student’s community. Some of the group’s activities included playing soccer, going on hikes, and helping students paint a new mural in a boy’s home. Not only did Vaughn’s group get to experience a new culture, but they also got to engage with it. For Vaughn, the best part of the experience was going with her group and interacting with the amazing students in El Progresso.

Since her return a year ago, Vaughn has been busy. After returning from an Alt Break program, activism only continues. Not only has Vaughn and other members of her group kept in touch with the students they met in Honduras, but they have also made and sold bracelets that funded one student’s education. There are even plans for a new library to be built in El Progresso.

So, for anyone interested in conducting service while experiencing a new culture, Vaughn recommends applying for an Alt Break program. Don’t be intimidated by the tough application questions, Vaughn says—just take your time and “go for it.” It isn’t as competitive as it appears; almost everyone will be accepted if they show they really want it. Just remember, Alt Break is not a vacation, even if the price tag makes you feel like it is (don’t worry, travel grants are available, and fundraising is always an option, either individually or with your group); it requires a lot of discipline and awareness.

For those of you who are thinking “been there, done that,” there is always the option to become a group leader. Vaughn loved her experience so much that she applied to lead the 2018 Alt Break trip to Honduras alongside partner Angelica Vega. Unfortunately, after months of planning, low interest and political instability within Honduras caused AU to cancel the trip, so Vaughn warns potential group leaders of this possibility.

She also mentions that being a group leader is very time consuming. Leaders must plan the program, arrange meetings, conduct research, devise a budget, and manage a lot of moving parts. Leaders must be 100% committed and not neglect recruitment—while her trip was relocated to Nicaragua, it was canceled in the end due to the lack of participants. So, while the experience is supposedly rewarding, only commit if you have the time to make it happen, and remember to divide the work evenly with your partner.

In the end, how you choose to spend your break is up to you. Sure, you can spend it on your mom’s couch, eating junk food and binge-watching the latest Netflix original—but why not spend it making a difference? You may surprise yourself when you step outside of your comfort zone.


(Photo credit: 1, 2, and 3)

Hayli Spence

American '20

Hayli is a junior at American University with a passion for reading, writing, and neurolinguistics. She also loves cats and memorizing Broadway soundtracks.
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