CHICAGO — For many college students, spring break means following a well-established ritual — travel south, bask in the sun, drink beer and escape reality.
But some students are finding there is an alternative, one that instead focuses on social issues like homelessness, the environment and working with people with disabilities.
This week, eight undergraduate students from the University of Missouri traveled to the Chicago area to work with adults with developmental disabilities at Aspire, a nonprofit in Hillside. The students will work with the adults in classes such as horticulture and technology, helping them gain job training and gardening skills. They will also be sprucing up housing in Franklin Park with a coat of paint and joining residents for dinner and games.
Nick Keesey, a sophomore at Missouri, is on his first alternative spring break, which he sees as an opportunity to learn about the struggles that people with disabilities face.
He freely acknowledges that he is going against the grain.
“While it may sound corny to some people, I think it’s an important thing to learn because as we move on from college and become members of a different community it’s important for us to know what some people in communities are facing and if we can serve them in any way we can,” said Keesey, a psychology major from the St. Louis area.
Meanwhile, students from Northwestern and DePaul are returning home from their spring breaks where they spent a week on service trips outside the classroom in places including a wolf sanctuary in Westcliffe, Colo., and a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.
The trips aren’t free. Students help pay for transportation, food and housing but say the real-world experience gained and friendships formed with other students through such excursions is well worth it.
For example, students typically pay about $200 for domestic trips that don’t require airfare and the school subsidizes part of the trip, making financial aid available, and students also rely on fundraisers to help cover costs, administrators said.
But even with the cost, there are signs that the concept is catching on.
Last year, a survey of 168 institutions reported nearly 23,000 students participated in more than 1,600 trips during the 2015-16 school year, according to Break Away, a national nonprofit that provides training and support for the trips. That represented an increase from 16,700 students on 1,300 trips four years before that reported by 130 schools.
Break Away works with about 230 schools, including Northwestern, out of an estimated 1,000 that provide such programs.
Keesey said that the trips have given him a new perspective. Through the student-led college program, he had participated in three weekend projects to clean up a historical graveyard, paint walls of a thrift store and food bank and clear out a children’s shelter.
“The manual labor stuff is not quite as glamorous and less personal but still necessary for organizations to function,” Keesey said.
On their visit to Aspire, the Missouri students will get a tour of a new career academy under construction. Aspire works with about 1,000 children and adults with disabilities like autism and Down syndrome, said its chief executive, Jim Kales.
“These students are going to be the employers of the future,” Kales said. “We want these young people to take the experience this week and impact the rest of their lives as far as them in the workplace and how they look at people they might potentially hire.”
Parker Levinson’s trip to the wolf sanctuary has re-affirmed her passion for wildlife conservation. The college junior said she also cherished the friendships she made with the dozen Northwestern students while doing meaningful work like building a fence or feeding the wolves.
Amy Parker returned from Washington with a sense of purpose. The 22-year-old DePaul senior spent last week alongside seven other students volunteering at a men’s homeless shelter. Now, she plans to push politicians for more resources dedicated to homelessness.
“It was great to understand my voice could do something about that,” Parker said. “This is one of the trips I could foresee having the biggest impact on me.”
Such trips are focused on meeting people who are experiencing poverty or marginalization, having one-on-one conversations and building relationships, said Emily LaHood-Olsen, ministry coordinator for service trips at DePaul.
“Service immersions offer students the opportunity to see and experience a reality that’s different from their own,” she said.