Taking an ‘alternative spring break’

When students head to Mexico during Reading Week in February, they tend to sit on a warm beach and let the academic tensions slip away. But what if they decided to skip the beach and spend their break learning? Then they would have an ASB.

No, ASB is not the newest MP3 player or an addictive numbers game—rather it stands for Alternative Spring Break. ASB is a co-curricular service-learning program run by Carleton University’s First Year Experience Office. Students devote their Reading Week to “learning and serving” in Ottawa and communities around the world.

Entering its second year, ASB has grown since last year when it sent 16 students to Vancouver. There, students worked with the University of British Columbia at a local inner-city school. This year, up to 55 students will be involved in the local and international programs. The program has plans to expand further as student interest grows, confirms Erin Kaipainen, service-learning coordinator in the First Year Experience Office.

Service-learning is a form of experiential education that places equal emphasis on student learning and benefit to the community. “Although the program isn’t for academic credit, it helps the students make connections between coursework and real life,” says Kaipainen. In addition, research has shown that service-learning has a positive impact on students’ development, problem-solving abilities, critical thinking and cultural understanding.

This year, the program is offering an international destination, as well as a local a project with Cambridge Street Public School in Ottawa. The international ASB will send 25 students (19 of them from the Faculty of Public Affairs) to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where they will spend the week learning about social justice and globalization.

The students traveling to Cuernavaca will attend daily seminars and participate in various service projects. The projects build on their current studies, provide career direction and, with hope, spark a commitment to social justice. The group will visit a shantytown and work in a breakfast program, work at compost and recycling cooperatives and discuss environmental issues, and volunteer with a Habitat for Humanity building project.

Students must deepen their understanding even before boarding the plane, says Kaipainen. They attend seminars and an orientation, complete readings and participate in fundraising activities. Students also map out their own learning goals, and make a plan to stay engaged with social issues upon their return.

The extra work may be a challenge, but Ayesha Kumararatne says that it is worth the extra effort. As a second-year student of political science and human rights, with a concentration in development, Kumararatne is excited about the potential of working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which is a possible career goal for her. She especially hopes to work with the Habitat for Humanity projects in Cuernavaca.

“We’ll be actively involved every day—no real break, but I’m looking forward to a condensed week of learning,” says Kumararatne.

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