Students spend ‘alternative’ break abroad

The culture shock most students experience during spring break is the trauma of temporarily moving back into their parents’ house or the mind-numbing headache of too many consecutive hours spent in an arcade. But a handful of Carnegie Mellon students will experience true culture shock as they prepare to travel across the country (or even outside of it) to aid underserved, underdeveloped communities.

This March, students on Carnegie Mellon’s Alternative Break program will travel to a reserve on the coast of Ecuador; at the same time, another group of student volunteers will fly to El Paso, Texas to build houses for working class families on behalf of Habitat for Humanity.

As these students gear up for their trips, they must prepare not only by reading background information on the area they will visit and learning new skills necessary for the trip, but also emotionally by readying themselves to view a different side of the world — and then be able to leave it all behind.

“To students who have experience in the first world, to be dropped in coastal Ecuador is like flying to another universe,” said Kenya Dworkin y Mendez, a Spanish professor at Carnegie Mellon and supporter of the Alternative Break program since its inception in 2005 as the fifth-year scholar project of Nuveen Marwah, a 2006 graduate of the Tepper School of Business.

In the past, the group has visited the Gulf Coast to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and to San Diego to work with the Border Angels, an organization that provides aid Mexican immigrantswho would otherwise die while crossing the border.

“[This year] we’re doing a variety of environmental activities, working in a school, building a fence, and volunteering for a hospital,” said Abby Morrell, a junior mechanical engineering major who is one of the 12 students going on the trip.

Dworkin has been preparing the group for departure by providing readings and other resources about the area in which the students will be working. She has also been pushing them to consider the more difficult questions concerning the situation into which they will enter in Ecuador.

“What’s the relationship between the reserve and the surrounding communities? Does the reserve employ local residents? What are the residents like, and what are their needs? Those are the kinds of questions you have to ask,” Dworkin said.

The students of Habitat for Humanity are preparing differently. They’re brushing up on the skills they will need to build a house, including framing walls, applying trusses and roofing, and other tasks. The trip has been an annual event for the group for the past several years. Last spring, the group built a house in Florida.

“Last year, the best experience was just learning how to use the tools,” said Nadia Bosan, a junior civil engineering major and co-chair of the spring break trip.

Once they arrive in El Paso, which is on the western border of Texas between the U.S. and Mexico, the students will work for five days with Habitat for Humanity of El Paso to construct a house.

“We’ll be constructing, if not the whole house, at least the external structure,” said Matthew Deutsch, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major who is one of the 20 students going on the trip.

One of 1800 Habitat for Humanity affiliates, the El Paso affiliate is unique because it constructs homes that use solar power, which is good for the environment and saves homeowners an average of $25 a month on energy bills. The affiliate was also the first builder in the area to receive an “Energy Star” certification from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Habitat for Humanity students receive no academic credit for their endeavor; Alternative Break volunteers have the option of receiving three units of academic credit through the department of modern languages by producing a creative analysis of their experience during the trip, such as a report, website, film, or photo essay.

“[Offering credit] is a way to provide institutional recognition for the student experience and give the trip an educational component that can be measured,” Dworkin said. “The university sees the value of [the program] because it provides academic value, intellectual value. I’ve seen these end products as contributing to departments’ webpages. In the future, I would like to have this model adapted to other departments.”

However, Dworkin reminds students that “there’s no reason to assume that everything you do should receive credit.” Although the department of modern languages handles the transfer of academic credit, Dworkin maintains that Alternative Break is an otherwise completely student-run organization.

Regardless of the differences between the two spring break programs, the goal of both groups is the same — to help.

“I hope to help build a house and in the end, help people who need places to live,” Bosan said.

Morrell expressed the same sentiment.

“I’ve never been on a service trip, and that was something missing from my experience,” she said. “I hope for it to be a changing experience for me, kind of an eye-opener.”
Dworkin wishes students all the best on their adventures this spring.

“I think it’s fabulous that they’re doing it,” she said. “I foresee lots more trips down the road.”