Students, faculty, staff give back through Alternative Spring Break program

Spring break finds many students lounging on beaches or traveling to exotic foreign destinations, but approximately 210 Rice University students, faculty and staff are choosing to spend spring break giving back to the community through Rice’s Alternative Spring Break program.

A Rice Alternative Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C. in 2014

Part of Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership, Alternative Spring Break places teams of students in communities around the continental United States to engage in direct community service and experiential learning. The objectives of the program are to provide an experience that allows participants to engage with new communities through direct service work; gain awareness and in-depth education around one social-justice issue; and learn about the value of the reflection process and connect with others on a deeper level. Each Alternative Spring Break group includes approximately a dozen students and faculty and/or staff advisers.

But the program is intended to extend far beyond the weeklong service trip. According to Jacqueline Jones, the assistant director of domestic programs and partnerships for the Center for Civic Leadership, it promotes the idea of taking informed action while performing service.

“Each of the Alternative Spring Break teams spend months learning about the social issues and communities they will be engaging with on the trip,” she said. “Site leaders build a comprehensive syllabi that incorporate community-asset mapping, social-issue education, government-policy review, historical-context review and more. This holistic approach enables participants to become informed agents for advocacy and actionable change.”

Starting this year, each group also has a Houston-area community partner and Rice University faculty-learning partner on campus.

“This year we implemented a new requirement that each team pair with a faculty member with extensive experience with the social issue,” Jones said. “This component ties in well with the strengthening academic focus of our program to foster critical thinking skills in students who aspire to be advocates for social change.”

Vickie Wang, a Duncan College junior, said the program is one of the things that stood out to her about Rice.

“The Alternative Spring Break enables individuals with a desire to do good to come together, connect, learn and ultimately transform their passions into actual service,” she said. “I was impressed that instead of pursuing the stereotypical ‘spring break’ parties advertised in teen movies, Rice students wanted to use their spring break to help others,” she said.

Wang said the program played a huge role in her decision to attend Rice.

“I wanted to be a part of this service-oriented community,” she said.

Wang, who will participate in her first Alternative Spring Break Feb. 28 through March 8, expects the experience to inspire continued service throughout the rest of her life.

“Since this trip is only one week, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to implement long-term change, but I believe that the knowledge about the world gleaned from this week will impact the way I choose to live my life, affecting my passions and career path,” she said. “I want to repeatedly come back to this trip as a time when I was inspired to make a difference.”

Michelle Kwan, a Jones College junior who has taken part in the program for two years, called it “valuable and rewarding.”

“It allows students to explore various social issues and to participate in critical service learning, which focuses on utilizing a community’s assets and creating a sustainable impact for that community,” she said. “Our approach is not to spend one week simply doing a project and leaving, but rather to learn and reflect both pre-trip and post-trip so that we may become advocates for the social issues we target and educate others when we return.”

Jones said that in many cases, the Alternative Spring Break provides “life-changing experiences” that help students clarify personal values, plan future academic work or solidify career goals.

“These trips provide students with an opportunity to interact with members of a community with whom they may otherwise have little to no direct contact,” she said.

Jones notes that while Alternative Spring Breaks are geared toward students, they would be impossible without the support of the faculty and staff members who freely donate their time – including paid vacation time – to participate in these experiences.

Mike Pardee, associate director for community engagement at Rice’s Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, will be participating in a trip in Houston for students who will be working with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston to support a variety of service agencies addressing social needs in the city.

Pardee said he felt inspired to participate because of his professional interests, which include studying issues of religious tolerance. He joked that for him, the experience is a busman’s holiday and one that he is very happy to take on.

“This Alternative Spring Break is right in the sweet spot of the Boniuk Institute’s mission,” he said. “This topic and the localness and the relevance are what attracted me to participate.”

Alex McNair, assistant director of the Rice Annual Fund, came to Rice in September 2014, the very same week as the deadline for Alternative Spring Break participants to sign on. He made the decision to sign up because of the positive experiences of some of the individuals in his office and for the opportunity to get to know Rice students.

“As part of Annual Fund, I regularly work with students, and this experience will let me learn more about the student culture at Rice,” he said.

McNair’s group will be traveling to New York City to volunteer at Susan’s Place, an organization dedicated to serving medically frail and mentally ill homeless women, providing them with healthy meals, clean clothing, recreational activities and a broad range of primary health care and social services.

McNair said the leadership of the Rice students he is working with has inspired him.

“It’s been amazing to me that I’m there if they need me, but the students are incredible and have been organizing everything,” he said. “This is a new service trip, and they’ve really started from scratch in organizing the week’s activities.”

McNair said the experience is much more educational than a typical service experience. He noted that the students have learned a lot about policies impacting this organization in New York City and hope to find ways to implement what they learn in Houston.

“It’s not about what you’re doing for these seven days; it’s about how you can take what you’ve learned and make sustainable change,” he said.

David Johnson, a postdoctoral fellow at Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program and his wife, Laura, associate director of operations at the Boniuk Institute, will be participating in a service trip to the Ronald McDonald House in Atlanta. Ronald McDonald House provides free housing for families so they can remain close to where a sick child is being treated.

The students in the Johnson’s group, many of whom are interested in the health sciences, will be interacting with families using Ronald McDonald House both to provide support and learn more about how illness impacts the family unit.

David said that he was inspired to become involved with Alternative Spring Break because of his interaction with undergraduates at Rice.

“I’ve always enjoyed it,” David said. “It’s very clear that Rice students are very motivated and very ambitious, and this seemed like a nice way to engage in service to the university.”

“We just both really love Rice,” Laura said. “It’s a really nice way to give back to what is going on here.”

Jones said it is the enthusiasm of the program’s many volunteers that makes it what it is.

“At the end of the day, this program wouldn’t be possible without the hard work and dedication of our student site leaders and  faculty/staff learning partners,” Jones said. “In addition, I’d like to extend a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all of our community partners across Rice University, the Houston area and throughout the United States.”

For information about how to become involved with Alternative Spring Break at Rice, visit


About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.