An Unexpected Break from the Books

News Image Alternative Break Trips Get Students Engaged

By: Victoria Marsala '17  Tuesday, December 13, 2016 04:32 PM

French-born novelist Anais Nin once said, “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” Muhlenberg is regularly offering students the opportunity to travel, to make connections with new people and explore human experience. These opportunities include alternative break trips.

For the last eight years, Muhlenberg has offered an alternative break trip to New Orleans in partnership with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit organization that was established in 2006 to help in the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. The trip is offered either during winter or spring break depending on the year, and gives students the chance to immerse themselves in a new environment doing fulfilling work.

During this trip, Muhlenberg students engage with the community and learn about construction work, all while discovering how their work addresses the larger social justice issues at hand.

“The St. Bernard Project is still in the process of rebuilding homes that were damaged by Katrina,” explained Callista Isabelle, college chaplain and trip coordinator. “I think a lot of people assume at this point that New Orleans has long been rebuilt. It’s shocking to think that all these years later, there are still folks who aren’t home, but that’s the truth about rebuilding after such a catastrophic event.”

The trip has been very popular, with typically about 12 students participating every year.

“I hope that [the students] learn about the communities of New Orleans,” said Isabelle. “I hope they gain a deeper understanding of the factors that often lead up to and follow a natural disaster.” The goal of the trip is to get students to think about the aftermath of natural disasters in a more nuanced way. The socioeconomic factors in New Orleans play a role in the city’s ability to recover, and injustices such as contractor fraud further complicate the process.

Isabelle explained that one of the focal points of the New Orleans trip is reflection throughout the week. Through learning the history of New Orleans and thinking about different social justice frameworks, students are challenged to think about how they can take what they learn in New Orleans with them back to Allentown.

The opportunities for traveling and community engagement don’t end with the New Orleans trip though. Each spring, students have another shot to attend one of these alternative break trips.

In addition to this year’s alternative winter break trip to New Orleans, this upcoming spring semester there are four alternative spring break trips being offered. There will be a trip to Washington D.C. where students work in partnership with Martha’s Table to raise awareness about issues regarding food insecurity and affordable clothing. The Muhlenberg Environmental Action Team (EnAcT) will also be partnering with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help restore the Chesapeake Bay. Students can work with Habitat for Humanity in Mobile, Alabama, building a home, or they can assist in rebuilding efforts with the St. Bernard Project on the Rockaway Peninsula of Long Island, New York.

Erin Beebe ’18 participated in her first alternative break trip during her freshman year in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. This year, she found herself unable to resist the chance to be a trip leader in the spring along with Crystian Massengill ’18 on the trip to the Rockaway Peninsula to assist in the rebuilding of homes affected by Hurricane Sandy.

“Going on an ASB trip my freshman year really helped me to engage with communities in different areas experiencing issues that, in my personal experience, I haven't had to necessarily deal with,” said Beebe. “I was so inspired by the people I met freshman year through the work (Crystian being one of them) that when he asked me to help with this trip we're running this upcoming spring, I didn't hesitate to accept the offer.”

Natalie Warhit ’19 expressed similar enthusiasm about the EnAcT trip she is co-leading to the Chesapeake Bay.

“I am so excited to go on this trip with my friends, and to use my time over break to do something educational, fulfilling and good for the environment,” said Warhit.

These trips give students a number of possibilities to seek out new places, and in doing so they create beneficial relationships with different communities that can be long-lasting.

“Doing community engagement work is probably one of my favorite experiences I've had the privilege to partake in as an undergraduate,” expressed Beebe. “I will continue to do so for the rest of my life because of the people and the work I've been involved in. I highly recommend an ASB trip or any sort of community engagement work to any student with extra time on their hands!”