Building in the Big Easy: exploring the untraditional

At 5 a.m. on Oct. 19, excited GW students waited in Kogan Plaza to be some of the first selected to go to New Orleans in March 2008.

This spring 84 students, two faculty advisers and seven trip leaders will leave Foggy Bottom to help volunteer in Musician’s Village in New Orleans – one of the many alternative spring breaks being offered by GW this year.

Musician’s Village, an eight-acre 72-home community, is a bustling center for volunteers that provides cheap housing for musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The student participants, who come from all over the United States, are dedicating their spring break to a larger cause than just a beach in Cancun.

“Before this, GW had never sent more than 10 students on spring break programs,” said senior Patrick Leonard, who is leading the New Orleans trip. “It was a huge undertaking.”

The New Orleans Trip is being offered by the Alternative Spring Break program, one of three major groups on campus offering such trips. International Alternative Spring Break, or IASB, is sending 19 students to Oaxaca, Mexico, and TRAiLS is sending 18 students to Utah and the Dominican Republic in March.

“When students come back to GW, they take something from the trip. It can be a catalyst for getting involved in other aspects of campus,” said ASB leader Collin Stevenson, a junior.

Unlike ASB and TRAiLS, IASB is not run directly by the University. The program has hosted four spring breaks at GW, and participants must raise about $35,000 before March. Students begin fundraising in October as they are selected from an applicant pool. IASB’s four leaders began work for the trip in early July, long before applicants are even considered.

“Fundraising is a big part of the experience and it really helps to bring the group together,” said 2008 trip leader and GW senior Kim Stimer. “Leaders devote around 20 hours a week and participants at least 10 hours per week, so it’s a lot of work.”

GW’s alternative spring break trips are not just about a week of work. They are much more time consuming and include fundraising, organizing and post-trip activities. IASB and ASB will have collectively raised $80,000 for their respective programs by March this year.

“A typical day probably includes eating breakfast at the home-stay or group hostel, traveling to the worksite at around eight, tutoring or building until three or four, dinner and reflection as a group at night, and various cultural excursions depending on the day,” Stimer said.

IASB trips in the past have included Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala. Stimer traveled to Belize City last year, and said it was especially interesting because she visited Cancun with her boyfriend that same week. Almost 700 miles east of Oaxaca, Cancun is a hotspot for college spring breaks, drawing in roughly 100,000 college students every year.

“He (my boyfriend) had a great time in Cancun, but the term ‘meaningful’ didn’t come up at any point in our conversation. I just don’t think the trips are comparable,” Stimer said.

TRAiLS challenges students in an extreme outdoors environment. It is more widely known on campus as the organization behind the popular pre-orientation program Project Exploration or P.E. This March, TRAiLS is offering trips to the Dominican Republic or Utah for a week of canoeing, snorkeling, rock climbing, mountain biking, rappelling, canyoneering and exploring.

“Our mission is to bring the outdoors to GW since we’re a very urban campus,” said 2008 Dominican Republic trip leader Ally Pregulman. “We want our participants to look back on their spring break trip say ‘I really did this. Wow.'”

TRAiLs is currently sending nine students Utah and nine students to the Dominican Republic with four student leaders, two for each program.

“It’s great because instead of coming back from a trip where you might not even remember your spring break, you can say that you jumped off of a waterfall,” Pregulman said. “That’s something you’ll never forget.”

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