Alternative Spring Break Ideas for Students

Happy volunteers lifting wooden frame together at park

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The phrase "alternative spring break" (ASB) usually means volunteering for spring break, a very rewarding way to spend your time off from college instead of hitting up popular tourist destinations like Cancun or Miami Beach. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that college students can enjoy the sun and sand while giving back to communities at home and abroad.

Traveling to volunteer is a fantastic and life-altering experience. The travel, the opportunity to help someone else, and the new knowledge about you and your place in the world are invaluable results of taking a trip abroad to volunteer. However, the number of projects that exist and the cost to participate in them can be daunting, so make sure you do your research before committing to a project.

You can also customize your own alternative spring break by taking a volunteer opportunity near you, from rebuilding national park trails to helping organize local food drives. Instead of just taking a vacation this year during your college spring break, check out some of these great ASB ideas and plan your perfect volunteer trip today.

The Cost of ASB

You may assume that spending your spring break as a volunteer is a great way to save money, but most ASB programs cost money, too. Even though you're going to work, most nonprofit organizations don't have the resources to pay for travel expenses for volunteers, especially if you're only investing a week of your time. At the very least, expect to pay for your transportation, food, and possibly your accommodations.

If you're looking into international programs—especially ones that do all of the planning for you—expenses can add up to several thousand dollars. Make sure you thoroughly research any potential volunteer projects before you make a down payment since some companies are simply trying to make a profit off of students with good intentions. For programs with especially high price tags, find out where your money is actually going: Is it being used for your travel and to benefit the organization, or is it being kept by some middleman?

It may sound counterintuitive to pay to do work, but part of the experience of "voluntourism" is tourism. The benefits for you as a traveler are just as great—and sometimes greater—as the benefit you're bringing to the local community. Think about it as an enriching experience that helps you to grow as a traveler and just a first step in a life-long journey of giving back to the world. What starts as an alternative spring break trip may inspire you to take an entire summer or even a gap year to do more volunteer work.

Alternative Spring Break in the US

Volunteering in the U.S. is generally the easiest and least expensive way to try out an alternative spring break, especially if you only have a week to dedicate to your project. The hassle of traveling internationally and jetlag can take away from your time to give back, and an ASB trip is a great excuse to see a part of the U.S. you wouldn't otherwise travel to.

United Way

United Way volunteers work in conjunction with local partners to address issues in urban America, like helping to build affordable housing and improving the quality of child care centers. It's also one of the most well-known ASB programs and helped propel the idea of volunteering during spring break thanks to a collaboration with MTV in the 2006 television show "Storm Corps," which featured students helping to rebuild along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, United Way has continued ASB trips to the Gulf region to help communities each year battered by hurricanes.

Over 5,000 students have taken part in ASB with United Way. You can generally sign up with your local chapter of United Way to help with community service projects in major cities near you, or look for special spring break opportunities that only last one week.

Break Away

Break Away is a nonprofit organization that partners with colleges in the United States to create service-oriented programs in local communities. It is a good resource for finding an alternative spring break that fits your schedule and budget if your college has a chapter.

Students at participating universities are granted access to Break Away's database of more than 400 non-profit organizations, with details like sample work projects and housing options. Although Break Away doesn't create its own ASB trips, it does provide training and resources for students and staff members including the annual Alternative Break Citizenship schools (ABCs) experiential training seminar.

You can check to see if your school has partnered with Break Away on the official website or by visiting your college's student activities organization.

Habitat for Humanity

Non-profit housebuilder Habitat For Humanity reports that more than 250,000 high school and college students have lined up to swing hammers over spring break through Habitat's Collegiate Challenge alternative spring break program since it first launched in the 1980s. Today, students can still sign up for an alternative spring break adventure with this non-profit organization.

The year-round Collegiate Challenge is a great option for any college student looking to donate a week of their time to a good cause. ASB trips are offered across the United States and typically help rebuild homes that were destroyed because of natural disasters like hurricanes around the Gulf Coast and the wildfires in Oregon, California, and Washington.

American Hiking Society

For nature lovers, the American Hiking Society's Volunteer Vacations offers trips where you can rake, shovel, trim, lop, and chop hundreds of trail miles. During these unique travel vacations, groups of six to 16 volunteers accompanied by a crew leader backpack or day-hike while cleaning and bettering nature trails across the country.

Although there are fewer Volunteer Vacations available during the spring than in summer, you can always use the American Hiking Society website as a resource for making your own spring break plans to beautify your favorite local trail. Additionally, you should be sure to check for upcoming Volunteer Vacations early as spots are likely to fill up quickly on these special trips.

Alternative Spring Break Abroad

Traveling to another country to volunteer can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, but it's important to do it right. If you only have a week, then planning an international ASB trip can be complicated and usually requires a significant investment of time and money. Look for projects in nearby countries to make the most of your time and consider extending the trip to two weeks if you can. If you want to volunteer abroad and really make an impact, think about waiting until summer and going for even longer.

i-to-i

With i-to-i volunteer vacations, you can tailor your alternative spring break, whether that's conserving a lake in Guatemala, building homes for Honduran families, or working with sea turtles in Costa Rica. Through volunteering with a good student travel outfit like i-to-i, where volunteering goes hand-in-hand with travel, you'll explore and help a piece of the planet without having to do much of the planning on your own.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification programs and TEFL internships abroad from i-to-i also provide a great opportunity to further your education while traveling.

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