Off the beaten trail: Alternative breaks for students

Liz Zabel

The Byrds, an elderly couple living in South Carolina, were lucky to have students all over the country come to their home to help completely re-roof her house. The couple, unable to fix up the house themselves, reached out to “Christmas in Action” — an organization where people can call in with repairs they need done to their house.

The organization starts with a $1,000 budget to fix what is most important to be fixed on the house. For the Byrds, years of old layers of shingles had worn down the roof of the house and needed to be completely re-done.

Two students from Iowa State’s Alternative Breaks program, Tiffani Nguyen, senior in sociology, and Nicholas Morton, junior in environmental and political science, traveled to South Carolina this summer to attend Alternative Break Citizenship School and assist families like the Byrds in rebuilding broken homes.

The Citizenship School is a supported by Break Away, a national alternative breaks program that sends college students around the country to help with specific social issues affecting the community. These issues include poverty, disaster relief, children’s issues, addiction recovery, and much more.

The Alternative Breaks program at ISU works directly with Break Away, to provide an opportunity for students to experience something outside the norm and to learn from an eye-opening experience.

Morton, co-chairman for Iowa State’s Alternative Breaks program, said these trips go far beyond just travel.

“Spring breaks to Cancun or Cozumel are great,” Morton said. “But we offer this great opportunity to do something that’s a little different and a little off the beaten trail that can provide some really great life lessons for you and would be well worth it at the end of the day.”

Nguyen, a site leader for the program, said that when you leave from a trip you come back with tidbits of information that make a difference in your life, even in a small way.

For example, in the past, she said she used to see older couple’s holding hands and think, “Oh, how cute,” but realized that in a way, that was objectifying them and taking the person out of the name. While working with the elderly in South Carolina, she said she learned the power of language and how to use better terms to describe people without objectifying them.

“You learn so much not only about the community around you but also so much about yourself, too,” Nguyen said. “There’s a lot of personal growth.”

Both students agreed the trips are also a great way to meet new friends.

Usually, the program sends 10 students with two site leaders on a trip. After spending 12 to 15 hour van rides and a full week together, you really get to know people, Nguyen said.

“You can’t not get to know them,” Morton said, laughing. “Alternative breaks has been one of the biggest event in my life. … I mean, it’s just so eye opening.”

Morton said Iowa State has a lot of potential.

“We have a very giving student body, a very willing student body, and we have wonderful Midwestern hospitality,” he said. “Hopefully this year we’ll get bigger and bigger as we continue.”

Both students encourage anyone to apply.

“We’re looking for anyone that’s interested in doing this, anyone who shows interest and wants to learn about things that are a little bit confusing and controversial and sometimes a little bit discouraging at times,” Morton said. “Open-mindedness is a big thing. You have to be willing to get out there and get your hands dirty.”

It was raining when they worked on the Byrd’s roof, Nguyen said, and as they finished up and it was time to go, Mrs. Byrd wrapped each student in a towel and planted a kiss on their cheeks, praising them for their hard work.

Although the work may seem hard and it doesn’t exactly sound like a vacation, both Mortan and Nguyen agreed it was more than worth it.

“[These trips] are so much fun and doing something you know will help the community really gives you a nice sense of accomplishment,” Nguyen said. “No one has ever left a trip and regretted it. Instead they think, wow, I’m going to do this again.”