Volunteer Abroad

Everything You Need to Know about Alternative Spring Breaks

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Natalie Southwick
Topic Expert

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations.

Everything You Need to Know about Alternative Spring Breaks

These days, spending spring break in Mexico or Florida is so passé. Maybe the idea of a week in packed bars surrounded by sunburned kids is appealing to some people, but we don’t know those people, right? You’ve got the rest of your college years to spend attached at the fingertips to red Solo cups, so why not use your week of freedom to save your liver and do something good instead?

If you’re thinking this way, you’re not alone – over the last decade or so, alternative spring breaks (or ASB) have become extremely popular among altruistic-minded students who want to take advantage of that time to do something positive.

Pursue a short term volunteer opportunity abroad in lieu of a week of indulgences. Grab your friends too! Here's everything you need to know for planning your volunteer adventure on your alternative spring break.

How to Plan Your ASB

While the idea is easy, turning it into practice is never quite as simple. Like registering for classes, finding the right program requires doing your homework and thinking about what you want to accomplish and where you’d like to go. Do you want to work with kids? Help out at an NGO? Learn firsthand about the educational system? Are you willing to spend that Mexico money going to Kenya or Peru instead, or would you rather help out closer to home? With the huge range of alternative break programs out there, these are all possible. You just have to find the one that’s right for you.

And that doesn’t have to be as labor-intensive as writing a research paper. In fact, many universities sponsor alternative spring breaks or have their own programs set up, so check with your study abroad office to see what options might be available through your school. Remember, also, that you don’t necessarily need to seek out a spring break-specific program. In fact, it might be more affordable to look at programs that aren’t marketed only to college students. Many volunteer programs offer short-term options (even as short as four days) that can be just as interesting, affordable and productive as long-term ones.

If you're seriously considering taking an alternative spring break, there are a few other things you need to research and think about. Begin by deciding where you would like to spend your break, then think about what type of program you want to participate in. Once you've decided, it will be much easier to choose the perfect program.

Consider the Location of Your ASB Program

The first thing to decide is whether you want to stick close to home or use your ASB as an opportunity to explore a more exotic locale. There are benefits and drawbacks to either choice.

Local or National Volunteer Opportunities

Sure, jetting off to volunteer in an East Africa orphanage will certainly seem more impressive to your friends and family, but there’s no reason your spring break has to take you far from home. Many ASB programs, particularly those run by colleges, focus on projects on the national level, or partner with U.S.-based organizations like Teach for America, United Way or Habitat for Humanity. These projects engage with the same kinds of issues as international programs do – hunger, housing, poverty, illness, education – but without the pricey plane ticket. If you’re really in it to give back to your community, it’s worth looking closer to home.

International Volunteer Opportunities

If you just can’t detach the idea of spring break from the image of a week spent in a foreign country, never fear. There are PLENTY of stellar opportunities to spend your precious non-studying hours giving back overseas. International breaks are more likely to be run by individual organizations or pre-existing volunteer programs, rather than through schools, but there are more than enough of them to go around. Be sure to check out organizations like IVHQ, Cross-Cultural Solutions, UBELONG and Projects Abroad. Each offer short-term volunteer stints that can easily fit into a university calendar.

Consider the Focus of Your ASB Program

It's also important to consider what you want to accomplish during your alternative spring break and to choose a program that will cater to your interests.

Volunteering with Children or in Education

Working with children can be one of the most rewarding ways to spend your alternative break days, and there are tons of programs that are more than happy to connect you with kids in need, both at home and abroad. Your responsibilities could be anything from teaching to organizing games to regular old babysitting. However, it’s very important to keep in mind that if you want to work with kids, plenty of organizations are happy to take your money in exchange for letting you play a few rounds of Duck Duck Goose. Before you sign up with a program, especially if it involves working at an orphanage, do your homework to make sure your time and money is going to help people who need it. If you’re more interested in the education in general, there are plenty of programs that will give you a first hand look at the challenges facing the U.S. educational system.

Build Homes as a Volunteer

If you’d rather be getting your hands dirty, plenty of locations offer the opportunity to get involved with a building project. Many universities partner with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to work on building projects locally and at sites across the country. If your interests take you farther afield, there are also opportunities to participate in building projects in places like Ghana or the Philippines. You’ll most likely be building houses or schools, so you better make sure those roofs aren’t going to be leaking on anyone!

Conservation Projects

As more of us become aware that the Earth needs our help more than our harm, conservation projects have sprung up across the globe. Whether you want to take care of rescued elephants in Cambodia or plant trees in sunny Australia, there’s a spot for you to lend a hand. If budgets are a concern, or you simply don’t want to go that far, there are many types of conservation projects in the US that will be thrilled to have you, from Mountain Justice to the American Hiking Society to The SCA. Many universities also offer conservation projects that may be more geographically convenient for you.

Specialized: Medical, Dental, Legal, etc.

If you’re studying a specific field, especially one related to health care and medicine, congratulations! There are so many organizations that want you! It must feel nice to be so popular, but it’ll feel even nicer when you put those skills to use helping people. Programs like VIDA will place you directly into local clinics to work with other health professionals, and there are specialized healthcare programs in every part of the world you can imagine. While the medical field may have the highest demand, there are also plenty of spaces for students in other specialized fields like law, business, journalism, microfinance and human rights. Don’t waste time pretending you like painting walls when you’d rather be drawing blood – the idea, after all, is to make yourself useful.

Quick Tips for Your Alternative Spring Break
  • Seriously consider if you want to go through your university (friends!) or strike out on your own through another organization (independence!).
  • Don't be afraid to ask where your fee goes, especially if you're participating in an international program. Legitimate organizations will be only too happy to tell you.
  • Remember that there's only so much you can accomplish in one week. Try to have realistic expectations about what you'll be doing.
  • Figure out how to make this project connect to your studies, activities or other interests. It isn't just a vacation week, so don't treat it like one.
  • Have fun, learn something, and take lots of notes (and photos)!

Part of being in high school or college is having to deal with people telling you that everything can be a “learning experience.” While this may not necessarily apply to learning how many pancakes your roommate can eat in one sitting, it’s certainly true of these kinds of Alternative Spring Break projects. Yes, you’re ultimately trying to contribute something meaningful to the community in which you’re working, but you should gain something from the experience, too. Keep a journal, write down your accomplishments, and stay in touch with the people you meet during your time volunteering. Vacations may sometimes seem like a dream, but it’s important to remember that the work you’re doing will make a big impact for many people.