What are alternative breaks? How are alternative break groups different from other volunteer groups?
An alternative breaks is service learning trip where a group of college students engage in education and direct service - most commonly for a week during spring break. Each alternative break has a focus on a particular or topic with exploration and immersion in that topic lasting the full academic year. Throughout the experience, small groups of 10-12 students engage in direct service alongside community organizations, education that explores a social issue from multiple perspectives, as well as forward-thinking reflection. These experiences challenge students to think critically and compassionately, and upon return, empower them to make informed decisions and take meaningful action that supports community efforts long-term. More information on the alternative break model can be found on our alternative breaks 101 one-pager.
What is Break Away and how is it related to alternative breaks?
Break Away is the national nonprofit that supports alternative break programs. While we don’t plan or send trips ourselves, we do provide training, resources, and consultation to more than 230 schools and 650 community organizations across the country. We can help connect you to interested and enthusiastic volunteer groups, offer phone/email consultation, and provide professional development opportunities for volunteer coordinators. For a more complete overview of Break Away and the resources we can provide your organization, check out our Break Away 101 one-pager.
Why alternative breaks?
We’re committed to alternative breaks because we believe in their power to help individuals see themselves as contributors to their communities. We call this active citizenship - individuals prioritizing community in their values and life choices. When the 8 Components are well-incorporated, alternative breaks can catalyze active citizenship and support positive community impact.
What is the SiteBank? How can I create a profile?
The SiteBank is an online database to publicize your volunteer opportunities. Creating a free listing on the SiteBank is the best way to connect with staff and student leaders from the colleges and universities in our network. To create a profile on the SiteBank, register as a community partner. Continue to the “Edit My Listing” page to complete your profile with information about your organization, past work with alternative break groups, and available volunteer opportunities.
I’m interested in hosting an alternative break. How do I get in touch with a program?
Alternative break programs exist at colleges and universities across the country - there is likely one at a campus near you! The best way to get in touch with an alternative break group is by creating and updating your profile on the SiteBank.
What kinds of training do students receive before they come and volunteer with us?
Because every school’s program is independently run, each program’s pre-trip preparation process looks different. Some programs meet only a few times before their trip, while others meet as many as 15 times - during which they engage in research and activities as well as attend lectures, workshops, and events to learn more about their trip topic from multiple angles and perspectives. Students typically:
- learn about the historical, cultural, and political factors related to their trip’s topic locally and globally;
- gain a greater understanding of your organization’s vision, mission, work, and relationship to the local community; and
- develop the hard and soft skills necessary to complete work with your organization and continue community work in their home communities.
Alternative break groups are often prepared to develop the curriculum for this pre-trip preparation but community organizations are encouraged to assist with any/all of these components depending on your capacity. For more information on how community organizations can best engage with students’ preparation and learning, check out the recording and presentation materials for our most recent national conference call for community partners: Contextualizing Service through Education, Orientation, and Training.
When should I expect students to contact me about planning an alternative break?
Different programs host alternative breaks at different times of the year: fall, winter, spring, summer, and even on weekends! Spring break is the most popular, with preparations beginning as early as 8-9 months ahead of time. Some programs work on much shorter preparation timelines, though nearly all are planning at least 4-5 months ahead of time in order to recruit and train students appropriately. Here is a simplified version of what we see as an average alternative spring break student timeline:
Who will I be in contact with during the planning process of an alternative break?
Different alternative break programs have different organizational structures, but generally speaking, they look something like this:
You may be contacted by a program staff advisor, a graduate assistant, a student director or executive board member, or the Site/Trip Leaders themselves.
What do college/university groups look for when selecting alternative break service projects and organizations?
Here is a helpful rubric to demonstrate some of the things colleges and university student groups are looking for when planning an alternative break. Of course, these categories vary based on the capacity of the community organization and the campus culture of the college/university (i.e. not all community organizations have to provide housing, meals, transportation, etc. The majority of student groups will find their own housing and plan for their own meals and transportation). You can also check out this list of questions that folks planning alternative breaks may ask you, the community organization.
How do I share project goals with alternative break groups?
If you’re working with an alternative break group for more than one day (see sample schedule here), the school may want to utilize a work plan or a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to guide the planning process. The students will do most of the heavy lifting, typically sharing important contact information and goals for the overall experience, while requesting you to include specific information about the volunteer project (i.e. intended project goals and skills required to engage in the work).
Because alternative break groups prepare for up to a year before arriving to work with your organization, and are often interested in long-term partnerships, it may be possible to utilize the unique time, resources, and skills of alternative break volunteers to build capacity for your organization. If capacity building work is possible with your organization, be sure to list this information on the profile and discuss that potential with the program contact.
Remember, it is never your responsibility to find work for the alternative break group to do. Instead, community organizations are leveraging the time and resources of alternative breakers to “plug them in” where needed.
What are my responsibilities as a community partner?
Work with student leaders to clearly define expectations for the volunteer group and articulate particular skills that students will need for the volunteer projects.
Provide an orientation to the organization and if possible, suggest ideas for the group to be involved with community events or activities. Supervise the direct service project agreed upon before the alternative break.
If possible, evaluate the experience and offer feedback to student leaders. The students will also be thrilled if you can share suggestions for continued education and advocacy.
Do I need to provide food, housing, and/or transportation for volunteer groups?
While there are some organizations that are able to provide food, housing, and transportation for alternative breakers, it is by no means necessary. Student leaders will generally find housing on their own at a local community center with floor space for sleeping bags and a well-equipped kitchen. However, students will likely ask you to recommend any housing leads in the area since you are more familiar with it
How can community organizations structure their opportunities to ensure full engagement?
While creating a space and culture of full engagement should fall on the shoulders of student leaders, community organizations can do as much or as little (based on their capacity) to contribute:
- Ensuring that all activities that students engage in are substance-free.
- Assisting student leaders in facilitating reflection (it’s always helpful to provide the community perspective).
- Communicating clearly community expectations and requirements before, during, and after service.
How do we maintain communication with students after the trip?
We see alternative breaks as a galvanizing force toward active citizenship, so naturally, we believe post-trip action (reorientation) is one of the most crucial components of a quality alternative break. Community organizations are encouraged to support students’ reorientation efforts, capacity permitting. Staying connected with student leaders and participants by way of newsletter, social media, or email/phone is a great way to maintain communication post-trip. For more ideas on how to stay connected with students post-trip, check out the recording and corresponding materials for our National Conference Call on Reorientation: Turning Alternative Break Volunteers into Advocates and Organizers, featuring Bianca Vazquez of the Steinbruck Center.
How can I connect with other community organizations that work with alternative break programs?
While we’re still dreaming of developing an online convening space just for community organizations, you’re welcome to engage with other organizations on our various social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). We’re also happy to play matchmaker and connect you with other organizations in your area or with folks doing similar work - let us know if you’d like an introduction!
I’ve been on the SiteBank for a while, but have not yet been contacted by an alternative break group. Can I contact groups directly?
While we don’t allow organizations to use our Chapter directory to contact our schools en masse, there are a few things you can do to better connect with interested groups and ensure that your profile gets more clicks and, consequently, more requests! First, make sure your profile is filled out as much as possible - we find that descriptive and recently updated profiles receive the most interest from schools. If you’ve worked with alternative break groups in the past, be sure to include the name of the college/university you worked with and any other information about your experience in the profile.
Organizations are invited to engage with the network on our social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), and send along anything you’d like us to post on your behalf - we’d be more than happy to serve as a megaphone for the great work you’re doing.
More than 24,000 students participate in alternative break programs each year at our Chapter schools - many of whom are looking for internships and job opportunities. If you have open positions for individuals, send them to us and we’ll post them for you on the job board in the student forums section of our website.
Finally, you can take a look at our branding resource for advice on using social medial to engage with students in our professional development resources.