Alternative Break Student Participants Put Spring Break to Good Use from New Orleans to Ecuador

With Alternative Breaks program, George Washington University students serve in 11 national and international communities.

Sara Durrani (far right) and other participants in the Alternative Break program in Ecuador this spring.
Sara Jovanni (far right) and other participants in the Alternative Break program in Ecuador this spring.
April 06, 2015

More than 200 George Washington University students spent their spring breaks as part of a larger commitment to service this month, building schools, grading gardens, cleaning up trash and teaching English in 11 national and international communities.

They were participants in GW’s Alternative Breaks program, housed in the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service.

Sara Durrani, a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, was a leader on the international Alternative Spring Break program in Ecuador. Working with the Tandana Foundation, she and her 19 fellow participants helped to build a communal stove and kitchen in Panecillo, a small rural community near the city of Otavalo.

Alternative breaks are not about parachuting into other cultures for a quick vacation, Ms. Durrani said. They provide chances to learn about and invest in communities around the country and the world. Her group met weekly before the trip, educating themselves on cultural issues in the area they would visit. Projects are self-perpetuating and driven by what the community says they need.

In fact, Ms. Durrani—who has gone on four alternative break trips in her two years as a GW student, two in spring and two in winter—was no stranger to Panecillo, having helped build a second story for the elementary school there the previous year.

“You don’t just go in and do service disconnected from the community you’re working in,” she said. “You build real relationships that are ongoing. Everyone still keeps in touch.”

After long days spent team-teaching English and hauling paving stones alongside members of the El Manzano community, the GW group in Ecuador made time for hikes and cultural expeditions. They also reserved a period for reflection each day—and found time to play soccer, eat and make traditional crafts with their hosts.

Projects ranged across the spectrum of social justice issues. At home in Washington, D.C., one group worked on various projects related to domestic violence and women’s health. In Atlanta, another group worked with the International Rescue Committee to assist displaced people. Others worked with Cherokee Nation Head Start to help provide educational services and Cherokee cultural history programs to young children in Tahlequah, Okla.

In Chicago, a trip that made its debut this year, students worked with Growing Power Urban Farm and with Gardeneers to increase food access in areas where access to fresh food is limited or nonexistent. They dug plant beds, started seedlings and cared for the farm’s six greenhouses, four pygmy goats, three chickens, bees and a cat.

Ms. Durrani said that alternative breaks are unique not only for the experiences but also for what remains afterward.

“We were able to see concrete changes and really to do what the community had asked for,” she said. “Even more than that, we made friends, and we were welcomed into this community. I came in with the expectation that I would help them, but they really helped me much more.”