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Students look beyond the beach for spring break

30,000 likely to choose community service trips this year

By Eleni Berger

Students from the University of Minnesota and Washington & Jefferson College move trusses to the roof of a Habitat house in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
Students from the University of Minnesota and Washington & Jefferson College move trusses to the roof of a Habitat house in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- While other college students are sitting on the beach next week, pounding margaritas, Laura Creamer will be sitting on a rooftop, pounding nails.

Creamer, a 21-year-old senior English major at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, will be spending her spring break building houses with Habitat for Humanity.

"It's just a really great way to spend your spring break," says Creamer, who prefers roofing to painting or hanging drywall. "It's a really great experience to help someone out who's less fortunate."

Creamer is one of a growing number of students looking for something different -- and meaningful -- to do when classes aren't in session.

"I think that students are generally hungry for real-world experience as part of their education," says Liz Hollander, director of Campus Compact, an affiliation of 868 U.S. colleges and universities that promotes public service. "A lot of kids ... are not turned on by the idea of flopping in Florida and drinking a lot. It's just not their thing."

Fortunately for those students, options abound.

Several hundred colleges and universities in the United States offer some type of alternative spring break program, according to Dan McCabe, executive director of Break Away, a national nonprofit group that helps students organize service trips.

This spring alone, the organization estimates, about 30,000 students will shun a traditional vacation in favor of community service.

Since 1994, the number of Campus Compact member schools that participate in alternative spring break programs has almost doubled, from 228 to 450.

McCabe says in general, service opportunities on campuses are increasing.

"Ten years ago, there weren't too many campuses that had those types of resources for students, and now most campuses have a center where students can find service opportunities," he says.

Trips for every interest

Programs are typically student-run, and the issues they cover encompass a vast array of interests, McCabe says. "Anything you could dream up is happening," he says, whether it's helping out on a farm, working with the homeless or mentoring inner-city youth.

Meredith Dean, a 22-year-old senior at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, has worked with HIV/AIDS patients and tutored preschoolers in El Salvador during previous vacations. The public policy and sociology major from St. Louis, Missouri, will spend this spring break with members of Jonah House, a residential community in Baltimore, Maryland, that promotes nonviolence.

A student from Catholic University works on the framing of a Habitat house in South Palm Beach, Florida.
A student from Catholic University works on the framing of a Habitat house in South Palm Beach, Florida.

"It definitely has to do with the state of the world right now," she says. "I want to be a proactive force in the nonviolent movement."

Spring break service trips are a win-win situation, those involved with them say.

"It's amazing how much students can accomplish in one week," says Amy Davies, manager of Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge program, which puts college and high school students to work on housing projects throughout the United States and the world.

The 10,000 students taking part in Habitat's spring break program this year will be building houses at 200 sites and contributing money to help pay for the construction materials.

Aside from the tangible benefits, the students often infuse local community service groups with new energy, Davies says, and often return to campus eager to continue public service.

The trips can also broaden the horizons of students who might not have been exposed to some of life's harsher realities.

"People learn about the root causes of social problems," says McCabe of Break Away. "They talk with homeless people and learn that they're not all lazy. People are able to break down stereotypes about all different social problems."

Many students say the personal growth they experience while on the service trips is one of the biggest draws.

"The absolute best part is the community that's formed with both the partnership of the site we're working with and the group of students we'll be working with," Dean says. "It goes beyond some of the bonds that you would form typically if you were just to go through the regular college life."

Hollander of Campus Compact says those kinds of experiences help students become more engaged in their communities and in civic issues. Dean agrees.

"I sometimes think college students get a bad rap for being apathetic and uncaring," Dean says, "and there's a large number of students that are participating [in public service]."

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