Alternative Breaks made me reflect on community service

I expected to talk about the rewarding service I did to help a small community in Nicaragua when I got back to GW after winter break. But my experience wasn’t quite like that.

GW Alternative Breaks is an organization that takes students on domestic and international service trips during winter and spring breaks. Each trip lasts a week and does service focused on an issue in the area that the group is working. My trip was to Nicaragua and we worked for Waves of Hope, a non-profit organization that has helped build schools and runs additional educational programs for local students.

About a month after my trip, I realized the community service I did wasn’t the most significant part of the experience. The service was simply a vehicle for an overall meaningful trip. What really meant most to me was the learning about development organizations and interacting with the Nicaraguan community. Regularly reflecting on the service we did was what made the alternative breaks program truly valuable for me

During the trip, our days were spent at a local high school, which was adding two new classrooms and in the process of improving the eight they had. In the mornings, we worked on mixing cement and paint. In the afternoons, we helped teach English and art classes.

After our service, my group would reflect on the questions we had from our service and what we learned about the organizations in the area. One consistent question was if foreigners, mainly Americans and Canadians, were running local nonprofits sustainably, and if international service was ethically acceptable, given the sense of privilege that even gave us the ability to go on the trip in the first place.

While the purpose of GW Alternative Breaks is all about service, international service is a complicated issue, which sometimes made me uncomfortable. The money we spent on the trip and the privilege we had often seemed overwhelming compared to the service projects themselves we were completing. My group did have an impact on the local community: We built two classrooms and painted six others. But I continually questioned whether the amount of service we did justified a trip all the way to Central America.

But in addition to our service, we learned about the organization we worked with and other organizations in the area. We learned about how it was run, why it was set up and how they plan to be sustainable. Even though we were actively working with them, we were also able to question the impact they were having, which allowed us to consider service in a nuanced way.

This close analysis of the service we were doing and understanding the community and organizations we were working with was what made the trip meaningful, more than the service itself. The hours we spent doing service were productive, but it came with uncomfortable questions. Grappling with these questions and analyzing the actors making change in the community added significance to the experience. This kind of reflection makes Alternative Breaks valuable.

During our group’s reflection on the last day of the trip, we were asked how we would describe our trip to our friends at GW. Many of us were open about the parts of the trip that made us uncomfortable, such as our resort-like accommodations. But what we put emphasis on was how the Nicaraguan community had an effect on us while we were trying to help it. We talked about our tangible impact on a school that is now set to reopen and how we were returning to GW with new perspectives.

I’m glad I went on my alternative break because I gained new perspectives on issues that I had questioned for a while, but was able to analyze up-close. While I question my own service, the trip brought us to local non-profits run by different organizations and we learned how our service played such a large role in the local community. And since my return to D.C., I’ve been more motivated to do community service here.

Sara Brouda, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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