Spring break and college students go way back. It used to be Southern Florida, particularly Fort Lauderdale. It has expanded to several places in Mexico, beach resorts in the Dominican Republic, cruises, and any place where underage drinking and other youthful behaviors are permitted. Alas, when I was of age, such spring breaks eluded me. And while I have had the fortune to be in the presence of college students every year since 2006, these trips have been a little bit different from the norm.
Yes, I have spent all of those spring breaks in and around New Orleans, a noted incubator for youthful license. However, I have had the pleasure to observe something totally different. Since 2007, I have been involved with trips run by the UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, whose purpose is provide drug and alcohol free service learning trips during spring break. And while we are no longer a part of UNH-ABC, our student-led trips will be based upon the same model.
This does not mean that students only spend their time engaged in community service. Nor does it mean that they are isolated from all vices while in New Orleans. The days belong to the agency we are working for. And free time is spent, usually with the travel groups, exploring the history and culture of New Orleans. And while that
can’t happen in a bubble, each student must sign a contract agreeing to follow trip guidelines. I am not naive enough to believe that this has never been violated, but I am confident that the purpose of these trips has largely been respected.
I am truly excited about this year’s trip, because I believe it holistically reflects the dual meaning of service and engaged learning. This year, we will be living and working in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In the nearly forty days I’ve spent volunteering in New Orleans and environs, I’ve spent exactly one day working in the Lower Ninth, the area hardest hit by Katrina’s flood waters. In years past, we worked throughout New Orleans and, at the end of the day, left for housing elsewhere. This year will be different.
This year, the class will be immersed in New Orleans. A third of the group will be staying at lowernine.org, the agency we are working with, while the rest will be staying at the All Souls Episcopal Church a short distance away on St. Claude Avenue. Thus, we’ll be working rehabbing houses in the neighborhood, while staying around the corner from Ron Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers or Fats Domino’s black and yellow house. And in the process, these students, mostly native New Englanders, will converse with people and absorb a culture far different from previous experience. And we have been invited to work with children in afternoon programs run by the church.
And all the while, they will be across the Industrial Canal from Musicians’ Village, ten minutes from the French Quarter, and a half hour from Uptown mansions. Along with the work, there will be good food, live music, parades, beignets, and the sites and sounds of a unique city. In the process, residents will engage them in conversation, endlessly, if you allow them. And in the process these students will learn more deeply and more intimately than they ever imagined possible.
I can’t wait.