Movement Lexicon

Foundations of Alternative Breaks

Alternative Breaks

An alternative break is a trip where a group of college students engage in direct service, typically for a week. Each trip has a focus on a particular social issue with exploration and immersion in that issue beginning long before the trip itself. Students educate themselves and each other, then do hands-on work with relevant organizations. These experiences challenge them to think critically and compassionately—and to understand that there’s no such thing as “not my problem.” Upon return, participants are empowered to make more informed decisions and to take meaningful action that support community efforts.

Alternative Breaker

An alternative breaker is, simply put, a college student who participates in one of these immersive service-learning experiences.

Active Citizenship

Through alternative breaks, we hope to assist individuals in seeing themselves as contributors to their communities. Alternative breaks are the “what” of Break Away, but active citizenship is our shared “why.” Active citizens are individuals who prioritize the community in their values and life choices. They don’t have to take action on every social issue, but rather, see the world through that lens. They take action on issues that matter to them and their communities.

Active Citizen Continuum

The Continuum gives a language to the transition from apathy to action. Members are individuals who aren’t concerned with their role in social issues; Volunteers are well-intentioned, but not necessarily well-educated about social issues; Conscientious Citizens are concerned with the root causes of social issues; and Active Citizens are individuals for whom the community has become a priority in their values and life choices.

Eight Components

Can you name them all? The Eight Components of a Quality Alternative Break are the foundation for any alternative break programs. Alternative breaks distinguish themselves from other volunteer programs by adhering to strong direct service, an alcohol and drug-fee policy, a commitment to diversity and social justice, orientation, education, training, reflection, and reorientation.

The Movement

The Movement consists of the 20,000+ alternative breakers, staff advisors, and learning partners who commit to active citizenship and to moving the needle on social issues each year at 200+ schools. It also consists of the 2,500+ Community Organizations who host alternative breakers each year. And with more than 25 years of alternative breaks and active citizenship, this Movement has made a lasting impact on the individuals who’ve participated and the communities they’ve served.

Community Partners

A Community Partner is a nonprofit or community group that exists to work with the assets and needs present in communities (i.e. food security or ecosystem restoration) to serve their clients and constituents. They utilize volunteers to build capacity for their work and do not charge fees for volunteer project coordination. Volunteer groups may work with one or many Community Partners for an alternative break trip.

Intermediary Organizations

An Intermediary Organization works to create high-quality service, learning, and/or immersion experiences for groups. Often, IOs will charge an overhead fee to plan or provide housing, meals, transportation, workshops, project coordination, cultural events, local tours, etc. IOs may recruit volunteers as part of programming and often can help provide connections to local entities and community organizations. Some Intermediary Organizations work in multiple locations and may have an office outside of the area(s) in which they work.

Staff Advisors

A professional staff member typically provides guidance and oversight for an alternative break program, although their level of “hands-on” responsibilities varies from program to program. Newer alternative break programs are typically more reliant on a staff member, while more developed programs include stronger student leadership, which allows a staff member to focus on bigger picture considerations - such as strategic planning, support from administration, and student leader mentorship.

Executive Board

A group of student leaders who oversee an entire alternative break program. While each one of our Chapter schools has a leadership structure that fits their unique campus culture, there are common practices, including one - two program chairs/directors, and often positions that coordinate fundraising, PR, reorientation, Site Leader training, trip logistics, among other positions.

Site Leaders

Site Leaders are the cohort of student leaders who facilitate individual alternative break trips. Two students typically co-facilitate a trip, handling the trip logistics and ensuring the participant experience is a transformative one through the inclusion of the Eight Components (issue education, community partner orientation, training, reflection, and reorientation, to name a few).


Participants are students who don’t have a leadership role on a trip. Their primary responsibility is to fully engage in the social issue, strong direct service, and reflection, and to use the experience as a catalyst toward active citizenship. On average, there are 10-12 participants on a trip.

Learning Partners

Faculty and staff members who accompany an alternative break trip are often referred to as Learning Partners. This title acknowledges their unique role as non-peer learners on the trip, while making it clear to the team of participants that the student Site Leaders are still tasked with facilitating the experience. Approximately two-thirds of alternative break trips include a Learning Partner. Some Learning Partners have additional responsibilities as a staff member while also serving as a full participant on the trip.

Pre-Trip Meetings

Prior to departure, participants spent time learning about the social issue context, building the group dynamic, gaining relevant skills, and are oriented to the mission and vision of the community partner or organization(s) with which they will be working.


Upon return to campus, participants transfer the lessons learned on break by identifying local organizations for continued education or service, sharing their experience to raise awareness of social issues, and by organizing or joining other small groups to take action on local issues through direct service, advocacy, and/or philanthropy.

National Alternative Break Survey

Each year we collect statistics from alternative break program across the country, who in turn, use the collective data to benchmark their program’s successes, impress at high-level meetings with campus administration, and galvanize their student leadership and participants. This “snapshot of the Movement” often provides the evidence needed to increase institutional support and, for individuals who are just starting out, prove the efficacy of the student-leadership model.

Chapter Membership & Resources

Chapter Membership

Break Away Chapter schools are a committed and collaborative network of alternative break programs across the country, developing student leadership, and pursuing measurable community impact. Membership gives schools access to trip planning and program development resources, ongoing consultation, and training. Whether your program is just getting started or has been thriving for 20+ years, Break Away and the Chapter school network can offer you the resources, relationships, analysis, and oomph to grow or sustain your program and to team up with other programs and community partners in exciting and collaborative direct service work.


This online resource connects our Chapter schools with quality community organizations. Schools can search organization listings by specifying the social issue they’d like to focus on, or the city or state where they’d like to do service. Based on the organization’s profile, schools choose whether to contact the organization and inquire about service opportunities. Community Organizations can create a profile to become searchable for our Chapter schools, which, last year alone, sent out 2,057 service-immersion experiences with nearly 23,000 student volunteers.


A companion to the SiteBank, this online resource assist Chapter schools in finding safe, reliable, and affordable housing provided by organizations, individuals, and places of worship that are interested in supporting alternative break teams.

Sample Document Database

Strong alternative break programs are well-organized, which takes continued effort. Our Sample Document Library makes those efforts easier, with template documents from our network of Chapter schools. From training curriculum to assessment tools (and truly anything in between), the Library has the materials that help bring structure to the work of running a quality alternative break program.

The Forum

Staff and student leaders utilize our online forum to access an archive of recent announcements; current job postings internship, and long-term volunteer placements; information about events and trainings; and National Conference calls recordings.

Chapters Listserv

Staff and student leaders utilize our email-based listserv to pose and answer questions on all aspects of alternative break planning, learn about innovations within the Movement, and get updates straight from Break Away HQ. And with a intentionally tight community of two-three individuals from each Chapter school on the listserv, your questions receive timely and helpful responses from other practitioners.

State of the Movement

For updates from Break Away’s national office on resources, trainings, partnerships, and victories from across the Movement, our network of Chapter schools relies on the “State of the Movement,” a missive sent out three times a year across our Chapters Listserv.

National Conference Call Series

Each month during the academic year, our Chapter schools convene to share resources and best practices for high quality alternative break experiences. Our monthly call series features relevant topics such as Implementing Curricular Alternative Breaks and Assessing Student Learning Outcomes on Alternative Breaks.

Active CitizenShop

Our online destination for SWAG - souvenirs, wearables, and gifts. Proudly represent the Movement, and let everyone know you’re an alternative breaker and active citizen. Be brilliant in Break Away blue.

Break Away Magic

No, we’re not alchemists. But we do pride ourselves on creating experiences and training that feel distinctly different than any others we’ve been to. Like any kind of magic, you have to see it to believe it.



Alternative Break Citizenship Schools (ABCs)

The highly regarded Alternative Break Citizenship schools, originally called “Boot Camps” when they debuted in 1993, are Break Away’s signature experiential leadership training sessions that combine interactive best practice workshops and activities with an intensive 6-day alternative break experience. Break Away offers four of these national trainings throughout the summer (June, July, and the start of August), with the locations and issues advertised and registration opened in March/April.

Staff and Student Leadership Retreats (SLRs)

Break Away conducts one or two-day trainings tailored to the specific needs of a particular college or university through its Staff and Student Leader Retreats. Break Away works directly with the host school to develop an agenda and training session that will give campus leaders the tools they need to be effective facilitators of lifelong active citizenship. Agendas vary by need and if Break Away facilitators will be working with Site Leaders, Participants, Executive Boards, or staff advisors. Training options include alternative break basics, strategic planning, foundations of leading an alternative break, tailored workshops, program consultation and evaluation, and train the trainer workshops.

Staff Development Summits

Twice a year, typically in the fall and during the summer at an ABCs, Break Away partners with a campus to host a 1-2 day event for 30-50 alternative break staff advisors. Sessions are led by the host campus, Break Away staff, and outside authorities on subjects of interest. Past summits have included sessions on fundraising, collective work (compacts), program policy and liability, training student leaders, assessment, and community partnership development.

Community Impact Labs

In 2015, Break Away will be piloting Community Impact Labs – regional gatherings for volunteer supervisors at partner organizations that host alternative breakers. These Labs will be dedicated to developing stronger ties and practices in sustainable and sequential work with break programs, refinement of Community Impact Assessment tools and processes, as well as developing a body of best practices to be shared with the broader field.

Break Away Posters

Break Away training has been proudly PowerPoint free since 1991. Sure, PowerPoint didn’t exist back then, but we would have shunned the medium had it been around. Our trainings are known for the use of our hand-made, colorful flip-chart posters. Once you see them, you too will be a believer.


Annual National Awards

Program of the Year

The recipient of the award is chosen based on a commitment to highly involved student leadership, the building of active citizenship on their campus, and a true dedication to quality alternative breaks. Nominees for this award must be current Chapter Members of Break Away. The winner will receive national recognition, including: a letter of congratulations, the presentation of the award at the ABCs, a program spotlight on one of our National Conference Calls, a letter to the college or university president, and $100 in Break Away products and services.

Alternative Break Staff Person of the Year

The recipient of the Staff Person of the Year award is chosen based on their commitment to supporting student leadership through a student-led alternative break program. Nominees for this award can be any staff person who advises a current Break Away Chapter school alternative break program. The winner receives national recognition, including: a letter of congratulations, the presentation of the award at an ABCs, a spotlight on one of our National Conference Calls, a letter to the college or university president, and free registration at a Staff Development Summit.

Community Partner of the Year

The recipient Community Partner will be chosen based on a commitment to building active citizenship and dedication by inviting alternative break groups into the great work being done in their community. The winning organization receives national recognition, including: a letter of congratulations and the presentation of the award at the ABCs.

T-Shirt of the Year

The winner of this award will have a t-shirt drenched with alternative break philosophy plus awesome design. Yep - it has to be awesome. Nominees for this award can be any shirt designed for that year's alternative break season. The winner receives national recognition, including: a letter of congratulations, the presentation of the award at the ABCs, and $50 in Break Away products and services.

Active Citizen of the Year

The recipient of this award is chosen based on a commitment to living a life of active citizenship. Nominees for this award can be anyone connected to the alternative break movement. The winner receives national recognition, including: a letter of congratulations, the presentation of the award at the ABCs, a letter to the college or university president, and free Break Away swag.