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Alternative spring break trips offer 'opportunity to learn and to continue to grow'

On Alternative Spring Break in Jinotega, Nicaragua, Northeastern University students worked with the organization Outreach360 to teach English to children in Outreach360's Learning Center. File photo/ Northeastern University

While spring break can be a time to relax and recharge, some students use it as an opportunity to volunteer, giving back to communities near and far through alternative spring break programs.

Several campus organizations offer spring break service trips, including the Center of Community Service, which this year is providing 172 students and 16 staff members the opportunity to volunteer across the globe.

The center has been offering these trips to students since 2003, and the 16 locations this year range from Pennsylvania and New York to Havana, Cuba, and San Marcos de Tarrazu, Costa Rica. This year, one group of students will be volunteering in Otavalo, Ecuador, some 4,700 miles from Boston.

Additionally, the university’s Scholars Program will send students to an additional five locations, including the Grand Canyon and Cuba.

“I’ve never been one for sitting on a beach, so this was a perfect opportunity to learn and to continue to grow,” said Michael Tormey, E’20, who left for his second alternative spring break trip in as many years on Saturday.


Number of students participating in alternative spring break trips with the Center of Community Service

Tormey is one of two students who helped organize a spring break service trip to Havana this year. It’s the first time the university has offered a program in the city. Both he and Elisa Figueras, S’20, will lead a team of students in volunteering at community gardens, improving community buildings, and assisting local women with sewing, in partnership with the service organization Global Volunteers. Students will also tutor Cuban locals in conversational English.

The service trip comes just a week after President Joseph E. Aoun signed an agreement with the University of Havana—the most comprehensive academic initiative by an American institution in Cuba—during a visit to the Carribean island nation, where he led a delegation of Northeastern faculty and staff and members of Congress.

Though Figueras also participated in an alternative spring break trip last year, she said coordinating this year’s service trip in Havana was a whole new experience.

“It was almost like taking another class—there were just so many logistics, and so many details we had to get right,” she said. “But I learned a lot about planning and managing, which are skills that will help me for the rest of my life.”

Their trips last year offered insight into just how critical student volunteer work can be.

Figueras, who volunteered in Kenab, Utah, with the Best Friends Animal Society—the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the U.S.—said that while she went in with one set of expectations about how she could help, she discovered that the best course of action is to listen to what the organization truly needs.

“We participated in a few presentations about breed discrimination throughout the week, which isn’t something anyone thought we would be doing, but it was what was needed to support the organization’s goals,” she said.

Tormey, who volunteered last year in San Francisco with three different public health outfits, had a similar experience.

“I learned things about chronic illness that I was able to bring back here to Boston and then share,” he said. “It was a weeklong experience that extended way past a week.”

The service trips leave a little room for fun as well. After all, it is spring break.

This week, Figuera and Tormey said they’re looking forward to exploring parts of historic Havana in a classic car tour as well as visiting local museums and immersing themselves in other cultural activities.

“We get to be tourists for a little bit, too,” Figuera said.

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