Alternative Spring Break marks decade

Stephanie Hayne Beatty has many tales of transformation she could share. At least a thousand, in fact.

For the past 10 years, the team coordinator for experiential learning through Western’s Student Success Centre has witnessed great change and personal growth in more than 1,000 students who participated in the university’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a week-long, hands-on, service-learning experience she co-piloted in 2003.

This weekend at Homecoming, ASB is gearing up for its 10th anniversary celebration, hosting an event on Saturday and inviting past program participants to share their experiences and reunite with former teammates.

Alumni of the program are flooding back, Hayne Beatty said, eagerly asking to speak and share their stories and experiences.

“It’s great to hear, years later, what (former) students will hold with them from the program. They will share stories and say, that, ‘To this day, the way I live my life is different because I participated in ASB,’” she said.

While the goal of the program was never to alter a student’s personal, professional or academic path, such change often emerges as a result.

“(Students) have gone on to do exchanges, to study different things, to work with non-profits here and abroad. My excitement is that maybe ASB sparked something in them that allowed for this involvement and this change, and (the program) is part of their life story now,” Hayne Beatty continued.

She said it doesn’t matter whether students work in a developing nation or in Winnipeg, Man., they often come back with a passion to work in and contribute to communities at home and abroad.

One student spent three of his Reading Weeks building with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He became a student leader through the program because of his experience and returned with a clear goal in mind.

“He went on his first trip, really loved it, knew things were shifting for him and wasn’t sure where things were going to take him. He came back and said ‘I really want to get into planning around disaster relief – (there were) a lot of things with Hurricane Katrina that didn’t have to happen.’ He’s now studying disaster relief management (at Humber College) and wants to do that as a career,” she explained.

Still, Hayne Beatty is quick to note that ASB doesn’t deserve the credit for changing students’ lives. At best, it’s an outlet and catalyst for their pre-existing desires to motivate change in the world.

“Students today, they blow my mind. They come to us with these great ideas about how they will contribute to the world and make a difference. This just gives them the framework to do something and to see what’s next,” Hayne Beatty said.

“We’ve had students coming to us and asking, ‘How can I get international experience? I’m interested in learning more about social justice, community development.’ This program is one way of many ways across campus to address that student need.”

ASB, run through the Student Success Centre and Housing and Ancillary Services, has come a long way since its first trip to Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2003 where five students worked in a homeless shelter, outreach centre and soup kitchen. Since, students have gone to developing nations in North and South America, working with Habitat, orphanages, food banks and other not-for profit organizations, lending a hand in communities at home and abroad.

Some 175 students are set to participate in ASB this year, with seven different locations lined up. The program’s coordinators are also planning a two-week summer ASB experience that emerged as an option to expand following a 2009 snowstorm that prevented three teams from contributing during their spring break.

Hayne Beatty said ASB is continually looking to grow, foster its current partnerships and develop new ones. The program also fits nicely under Western’s internationalization umbrella, reflecting Western president Amit Chakma’s vision for the university.

“This idea is that you don’t just come to Western, soak up all this knowledge and then keep it for yourself. But you take your knowledge and you use it for good in some way around the world. Not only can students do that while at Western, by participating in something like ASB, they get inspired to do other things. We can say Western graduates all over the world are socially responsible and civic-minded.”