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Articles / Majors & Careers / What is Alternative Spring Break and How to Have One

What is Alternative Spring Break and How to Have One

Krasi Shapkarova
Written by Krasi Shapkarova | Jan. 17, 2019
What is Alternative Spring Break and How to Have One

As a college student, you probably cannot help but think about spring break, a time off from studying, papers, quizzes and exams. Although the mention of spring break may bring up images of all-day and all-night parties on sunny beaches, this is certainly not the only way to spend your vacation. If you seek to combine your excitement for a break from studying with a fulfilling engagement, you may want to consider having an alternative spring break (ASB).

Break Away, a national nonprofit organization, defines an alternative break as “a trip where a group of college students engage in direct service, typically for a week." Students interested in exploring the option can do so at any time during their college journey. “I jumped at the chance to do an alternative spring break during my sophomore year of college at the University of Wisconsin – Madison," shares Liz Matthews, associate director of employer relations at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.“ I wanted to do something more meaningful than a typical spring break and it gave me an opportunity to get to know other students at my university."

In the past three decades, alternative breaks have become quite popular and many higher education institutions, including Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University, University of Colorado Boulder and University of Southern California, offer opportunities for their students to explore such breaks. According to Break Away, a quality alternative break program consists of eight components: strong direct service, full engagement, diversity and social justice, orientation, education, training, reflection and reorientation.

The week-long engagements allow students to stretch, inspire and challenge themselves through direct community involvement. The purpose of the trip is to address a specific social issue students have ideally immersed themselves in beforehand. Some universities pair the on-site service engagement with a course that facilitates reflection and learning. Even if a formal course is not attached to your program, keeping a journal and reflecting on your experience is key to enhancing your learning. You may also want to continue your engagement after the one-week program ends by writing about the experience and keeping in touch with the community with which you connected.

As you consider embarking on an alternative spring break, think about what you'd like to accomplish and evaluate different options. Below, I've listed three points you may want to keep in mind:


Before you can identify an ASB opportunity, make sure you determine the social issue you are passionate about and where you want to focus. Do you want to tackle poverty? Refugee resettlement? Rural development? Education? Access to healthcare? Environmental concerns? Cultural erosion? You can certainly care about more than one issue, but as you seek to narrow your options for an ASB program, zero in on the one that resonates with you the most. Identifying one issue to focus on during your break does not mean that you don't care about others; it simply helps you focus because there is only so much you can achieve in the course of one or two weeks. Also, do not assume that any volunteer opportunity will work for you. Reach out to students or alumni who have completed a similar project and inquire about their experience and learning. You want to make sure you commit to an organization that brings meaningful impact. Keep in mind that you have the option to participate in an ASB program each year, so you absolutely can tackle more than one issue through different engagements.


When it comes to alternative spring breaks, location options are plentiful. Depending on your goals, interests and financial means, you can stay in your local area, travel within the United States or travel internationally. You want to know your preference ahead of time so that you can make appropriate arrangements. Conduct research on the social issue you want to address and identify areas that need support. Traveling internationally requires more considerations and if that's something you want to pursue, start early with your preparations. If you have limited finances, you may want to stay local and address an issue that faces your community. In college, Matthews opted for an engagement in the US.

“About 12 of us hopped in a van and drove 13 hours to Franklin, N.C. We were set up in a local church as our base to sleep at night and make dinner together and during the day we helped to weatherize houses for the elderly. It was a small town and the residents were grateful for our services. I treasured the experience of being with my peers doing something meaningful and traveling to a part of the country where I had never been."


Alternative spring break programs help a community in need but they also bring value to participants. For example, participation in an ASB has shown to increase personal growth and personal effectiveness. “There is value in seeking something different even if it isn't the most conventional or easy path," Matthews points out. An alternative spring break can be the experience you need to gain the skills employers seek. As organizational psychologist, Wharton professor and author Adam Grant emphasizes, career success is rarely a result of academic excellence; rather, it's skills developed through social and volunteer engagements that enhance students' performance and make them more valuable to employers.

A serious volunteer engagement can be meaningful on its own, but I recommend that you are intentional and consider opportunities that both help you address an issue you care about and enhance the skills you need to help you move forward in your career. Participating in an alternative spring break can also help you align your values with the values of target employers driven by a social mission. Don't hesitate to speak with a career counselor to further explore your goals so as to choose an ASB option that best aligns with your future plans. For instance, if you seek to practice and polish your leadership skills, you may want to take the initiative and apply to be a site leader.

If an alternative spring break sounds exactly like what you've been looking for, check with your institution to see if a relevant program already exists. “The advantage of going through your school is that you meet other students and can travel together," says Matthews. “Another route is to go with an organization that hosts these opportunities, such as Habitat for Humanity." If your college doesn't have a designated program or the options don't meet your expectations, you may want to review the opportunities listed below. For some of them, participants don't have to be college students, which may help you establish meaningful relationships with professionals from a variety of backgrounds and fields.

- Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Challenge

- United Way Alternative Spring Break

- Cross-Cultural Solutions

- International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)


Written by

Krasi Shapkarova

Krasi Shapkarova

A longtime careers writer and coach, Krasi Shapkarova serves as an associate director of coaching and education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Washington, DC, and is also the editor-in-chief of Carey the Torch, the official blog of the Career Development office. She is a Certified Career Management Coach with The Academies, an MBTI Step I and Step II certified practitioner, and has completed training in the Career Leader assessment. Prior to joining the Carey Business School staff, Krasi worked as a counselor at the distance education department at Houston Community College. In that role, she assisted students with career exploration, degree planning, course selection and study skills. In addition, Krasi has extensive experience as a writing tutor assisting students with resumes, cover letters and scholarship essays. She also interned at Shriners Hospitals for Children and has a background in the non-profit sector. Krasi holds a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and a Master of Arts in International Human Rights from the University of Denver. When not in the office, Krasi enjoys hiking and camping.

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