Alternative Breaks Turn Community Awareness into Action

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Illustration of children's faces in a flower done by Edel Rodriguez.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

The first step toward addressing injustice in the world is understanding it. That’s the philosophy of LMU’s Alternative Breaks, a service and cultural immersion program that transforms students into global citizens.

A campus mainstay since 2004, the community-based learning program takes an issue-first stance. Destinations are determined based on emerging social concerns around the world, and have been as far-flung as Israel and Nicaragua, and as close to home as Los Angeles neighborhoods Crenshaw and Boyle Heights. 

“You don’t always have to go to another country to experience a world you’ve never seen,” said Pam Rector, director at the Center for Service and Action.

Whether international or domestic, safety and connection to community are critical.

“A community partner is key to any of the trips,” said Jessica Viramontes, Alternative Breaks program coordinator. “Do they have experience hosting students? Is it safe? There’s an education piece, a cultural immersion piece, and hands-on work. We consider a lot of factors.”

No matter the locale, the community-based learning approach stays consistent, as do the nightly reflections, which provide students an opportunity to discuss and process the evolving experience. For LMU alumnus and former Alternative Breaks student leader Mike Lee, the reflections were a defining part of his monthlong stay in Tanzania. 

“Some people were teaching English at an adult education center; some were working in a nursery for HIV-positive infants; others were teaching math and business at an all-girls vocational school,” explained Lee. “It’s an interesting challenge because people had such disparate experiences, but everyone came back to our hostel at night and unpacked what they worked on during the day. It was a powerful experience.” 

Hands-on volunteering can be part of a trip’s programming, though it’s not necessarily typical, nor is it core to the Alternative Breaks mission.

“I think one of the most amazing things about the program is that it focuses on getting away from the traditional volunteering mindset,” said Allison Leggett, LMU alumna and former Alternative Breaks financial coordinator and participant. “Instead of us going to an international or domestic site with the intention of building a house, for instance, we’re going with the intention to learn from a community dealing with a problem and take what we learn back to our own communities.” 

As a post-trip action, each group, consisting of around twelve students, is required to create a video documenting their experience. These collectively screen at LMU’s annual Alternative Breaks Film Festival each spring. However, most go further.

“Many students return from these trips and host panels, invite speakers to campus to present on the topic, or gather signatures to petition the city on a related issue,” explained Viramontes, recalling a recent instance where students petitioned to make L.A. a GMO-free city after witnessing Monsanto’s grip on agriculture in India. 

Closer to home, trips have revolved around institutionalized racism, LGBTQ challenges, and gentrification in Chicago, New York City, and L.A. respectively. 

Chris Reynoso, class of 2018, attended the spring 2017 trip to Chicago, and has already seen its value in his leadership role at MEChA de LMU, a Chicana/o organization focused on social justice. 

Reynoso said, “We’ve been able to utilize the tools and resources provided to look at our organization and at LMU as a whole and ask: How can we be effective leaders in trying to work toward a more racially just society? How can we best serve our students and ensure that we are living up to our Jesuit values? That’s been a beautiful experience.”

While some participants find vehicles for immediate implementation, for many the impact takes longer to materialize. 

“You can’t necessarily measure or see it right away. It plants a seed,” explained Viramontes. “Some go on to change their major, or they integrate it as part of their career. I have students who email me afterward and say, ‘Just so you know, this is what I’m doing because I can’t forget Haiti, or what we learned in Morocco.’ ”

LMU alumnus Lee agreed.

“I now work for a humanitarian organization that does domestic and international disaster response, and I can say 100 percent that Alternative Breaks set me on this path,” said Lee. “You’re not a tourist when you go on an Alternative Breaks trip. You’re an active participant in the lives of others. That’s a rare opportunity that many people don’t have.”

Heightened social awareness to inspire lifelong action. A powerful way to spend a break, indeed.