By Jamie Rogers
As college students flock south for spring break in search of beaches and warmer temperatures, about 60 George Mason University students traveled to six destinations for community volunteer work.
The Alternative Break program at George Mason offers six destinations: Guatemala; Jamaica; Stuart, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; Camden, N.J.; and El Salvador. There’s also a summer trip to South Dakota.
Community health major Nicole Henry is part of the group traveling to Guatemala, working on lesson plans focusing on nutrition, dental care and the environment.
“We get to work with children in a school setting and have fun while doing it,” she says.
Henry says she’s not especially worried about spending a week in a poorer area that may not have the amenities she’s used to in the United States.
“My family is from Jamaica, so I know how to take a shower in cold water and to not have heat or air [conditioning],” she says. “I specifically chose this trip because my family is not as fortunate as I am. I see how people are more happy living in simplicity. I hope to learn as much from these students as they do from me.”
Global and community health major Marciel Rojas-Rosario says traveling to Guatemala to volunteer will help her reach the goal of working for a nonprofit in her home country of the Dominican Republic.
“I’m happy I did it this year,” Rojas-Rosario says of her Alternative Break plans. “It’s combining everything I’ve learned in my community health classes into one project.”
The skills she learns on this trip will help her post-graduation when she hopes to work with the Peace Corps for two years in Cambodia.
For many years, a trip focused on HIV and AIDS stigma was held in New York City, but the community partners there were no longer able to accept students, says Kelly Dalton, Mason’s Alternative Break coordinator.
“We realized there is a high incident of HIV infection 30 minutes from us, right in our backyard,” says Harris, who works in the Social Action and Integrative Learning office and is a leader of the trip.
Instead of finding new partners in New York, they decided to move the trip to Washington, D.C., and focus on helping local community partners, Dalton says.
“Our mission is to develop long-term sustainable relationships with community partners at each site,” Dalton says.
The group of 10 will stay at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood where many homeless spend their days, Harris says.
“It’s going to take a lot of students out of their comfort zone. It’ll be different, but it’ll give everyone a perspective of what it’s like to be in a vulnerable population.”
“We kind of just see D.C. as this place where we can go on the weekends, and it’s so much more than that. Like any other area, they have a lot of problems,” says Harris, who organized the trip with the help of another student, Amandeep Sandhu. “It’ll be good to step out of the student lens for a while and step into the real world—the hard world.”