Kristen Keely-Dinger, BS’98, remembers March snow falling on the streets of New York, the sounds of babies crying and people screaming, and the stench of urine in the housing projects as she carried hot meals up flight after flight of stairs.
As a Vanderbilt sophomore who had signed up for Alternative Spring Break, she was spending the week with a group that delivered meals to people who were homebound and living with HIV/AIDS.
“I remember the touch of a very sick man’s hand as he took the meal from me,” Keely-Dinger says now, some 15 years later. “I remember the smile of a man who lived on the sixth floor of his building with no elevator, and was so frail he could barely get out of his chair. He invited us in for a chat and told us that often the volunteers who delivered his meals were the only people he would talk to each day.
“I remember looking up as we came out of one of the dilapidated buildings and seeing the snow falling to the ground and covering the dirt and grime of the city. Watching that snow felt symbolic to me of hope and of rebirth.
“Those unintentional touches and conversations had a deep and life-altering impact on me, which eventually led to altering my undergraduate study,” adds Keely-Dinger, who after graduation signed up to serve in an AmeriCorps program through the National AIDS Fund. She went on to earn a master’s degree in social work and now works in the field of philanthropy, as vice president of programs and grants for Nashville-based Baptist Healing Trust, which works to foster access to health care for vulnerable populations.
Multiply Kristen Keely-Dinger’s experience by 25 years and hundreds of students, and you get an appreciation for the significance of Alternative Spring Break. Vanderbilt’s ASB program is regarded as the largest and oldest student-run travel program of its kind in the country, and it has been widely emulated on other college campuses. This year 440 Vanderbilt students took part in service trips to 37 sites—most in the U.S. but also in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Toronto, Canada.
Mark Dalhouse, director of the Office of Active Citizenship and Service at Vanderbilt, estimates that during its 25 years, Alternative Spring Break has involved nearly 7,000 student participants. Vanderbilt’s program has expanded in recent years to include Alternative Summer Break, Alternative Winter Break, and a newly created Alternative Thanksgiving Break. This year also marked the beginning of opportunities for Vanderbilt alumni to take part by providing service or hospitality in several cities across the country.
“ASB provides a dose of reality for many undergraduate students by allowing them to become educated—on topics ranging from homelessness to HIV/AIDS to wildlife conservation—prior to spring break, and then spend a week immersed in that issue,” says Dr. Ben Ludwig, BA’02, who is completing his residency at Boston University Medical Center.
“Students are forced to confront reality and address their own misconceptions, and by working on-site, they gain a much greater understanding of the issue at hand,” adds Ludwig. He first participated in ASB during his sophomore year, then served as a site leader his junior year, and was co-director of ASB his senior year.
Vanderbilt’s Alternative Spring Break roots go back to 1986, when Susan Ford Wiltshire, a longtime classics professor at the university, challenged students in the Omicron Delta Kappa honor society to organize a week of service as an alternative to the time-honored spring break bacchanal. As Professor of History Marshall Eakin relates the sequence of events in a brief history he compiled five years ago about ASB at Vanderbilt, a small group of students took up Wiltshire’s challenge, led by Ethel Johnson Harris, BS’87, with assistance from Kathy Gray, BS’88; Claudia Deane, BA’88; and Courtney Reynolds White, BE’87.
The first spring break trip took place in March 1987. Seventy-five students applied to work at one of four sites: “with Cambodian refugee families in Nashville, at Roses Creek in East Tennessee, at a Sioux Indian reservation in Dupree, S.D., and in Juarez, Mexico,” according to Eakin. “The office of Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt provided one-third of the total funding of $13,000, the student projects fund came up with $2,000, and the participants contributed $6,500 (or half) the budget.”
“Chancellor Wyatt really believed in student empowerment and supported those of us who were involved in service efforts every way that he could,” says Laura Mann Magevney, BA’91, JD’97, MDiv’98, who with her husband, Michael, served as an ASB co-director and later as co-founder of Break Away (see sidebar, right). “We had great support and professors like Marshall Eakin helping to advise us—but without taking over. It really was student-led, and that helped the program grow.”
Heavy Lifting and Lifelong Learning
By 1989, ASB had blossomed into a formal organization with student co-chairs, a student executive committee, and a slogan: “The toughest spring break you’ll ever love.” From its early days, the organizers seemed to have been clear-eyed about how much could be accomplished by a loose coalition of college students, and how to maximize the experience.
“There’s a clear acknowledgement that as a participant, you’re probably going to gain more than you give,” says Michael Magevney, BA’91, MBA’98. “But that spirit really helps students blossom and grow into lifelong learners.”
“Obviously, in a week, we didn’t rebuild an entire community or change inner-city schools,” says Sarah Latterner, BS’98, who has worked in areas of public management and social policy since graduation, and is now with United Way Worldwide. As a sophomore she was part of an ASB group that worked on construction projects with a Native American community in Oklahoma, and as a senior she co-led a group that worked with inner-city Detroit youth. “They were totally different projects, but both were substantial—and the relationships we created, the conversations we had, and the experience for all involved had an awesome impact.”
Laura Pierce, a current Vanderbilt junior, hasn’t yet settled on a career but is exploring options that involve international work or health-care administration. She has participated in Alternative Spring Break the past two years—last year doing manual labor removing invasive species and collecting seed in the Grand Canyon, and this year volunteering for a day care and working with Habitat for Humanity in Immokalee, Fla.
“In the Grand Canyon we could visibly see the grounds we had cleared,” she says. “It takes years to remove an invasive species due to seeds left in the ground, and the rangers we worked with commented that the part of the Canyon we were camping in had seen a drastic change because of service groups like ours.”
“I think many people are skeptical about the impact that 12 Vanderbilt students can have while volunteering during spring break,” says Ludwig. “At the end of the week, there are definitely tangible accomplishments. But it is often the act of doing that makes ASB so valuable—sharing conversation at a shelter for victims of domestic violence, sharing a meal with a resident in a shelter, or working on a science project with a child—and that can have the most profound impact on another individual’s life.”
Vanderbilt’s Alternative Spring Break program is headed by a student executive board, with 12 students appointed in pairs to the positions of co-chair, education, placements, public relations, site and service development, and treasurer. Many have previous ASB experience under their belts before going on the board or serving as site leaders.
Students interested in signing up for ASB submit an application and undergo an interview with board members and site directors. A maximum of 12 participants is placed at each site. Students also may apply for financial aid to help meet the costs of the trip, which vary according to site.
It’s not just the week of the trip itself, but the training and discussions before and after that help give ASB its impact. “Before and during the ASB trip, students are educated about the issues they are trying to address as well as reflect upon what they did, what they saw, and how they felt about it,” says Keely-Dinger, who was a site leader during her third year of Alternative Spring Break involvement. “This process of education, action and reflection helps to create the opportunity for personal growth and change.”
ASB alumni agree that another valuable aspect of the experience is the way it cuts across campus boundaries of school and major, Greek and independent. Organizers work hard at making the service groups of about a dozen people as diverse as possible.
Laura Pierce didn’t know any of the other students in her group before signing up this year. “Everyone on my site had such a unique range of interests, from writing poetry to playing basketball, participating in Greek life or juggling or playing the violin. Despite different interests, we all shared the desire to learn, to meet new people, and to make the most of our break.”
“Initially, I knew only about five people participating in ASB. It was incredible to experience, and later as a site leader to witness, how close a group of random Vanderbilt students could become after being crammed into a Ford Econoline van and sharing an intense week of service,” says Ludwig, who as a physician is continuing to explore new service opportunities through medical training, especially in refugee health.
Dr. Chris Kyle, BS’99, participated in Alternative Spring Break all four years at Vanderbilt. “ASB really does cut across all groups on campus,” says Kyle, who is now a urologist in Eugene, Ore. “I made many lasting friendships with people I may not have met otherwise, and I keep in touch with many of them.”
The experience also builds bridges between students and faculty. Mark Bandas, dean of students and associate provost, notes that Vanderbilt’s recent emphasis on residential life has amplified opportunities for engagement and discussion around the issues students explore in their Alternative Spring Break experiences. “The fact that we’re a residential campus makes a big difference,” he says. “We have an unusually caring campus community.”
A Revelation and a Gift
Larry Dowdy, professor of computer science and professor of computer engineering, holds the undisputed Vanderbilt faculty title for having accompanied students on the most Alternative Spring Break trips: 19 so far. “In my normal life, I am just into my teaching, research and administration, and it’s easy as the years go by to become somewhat cynical about life,” Dowdy says. “Alternative Spring Break is a chance for me to spend a week with students who are committed to giving back, and that’s invigorating.
ASB attracts people from all over campus—all genders, ethnicities, classes, colleges and majors. Spending a week doing service with a group of 11 strangers allows us to learn how other people experience Vanderbilt.
—Callie Wade, Class of 2011 and 2011 co-chair of ASB
“You go into it thinking you are going to help people, but it’s really you who benefits,” Dowdy says. “It’s you who is changed.”
One year Dowdy accompanied a group that went to Union, W.Va., a town he had been familiar with since boyhood as the home of his grandparents. “[A]s a small boy I remember going there and having no indoor plumbing, only outhouses and bedside chamber pots to use in the middle of the night. We milked our own cows for milk and used our own chickens for stew. But I never viewed this area as being in poverty,” Dowdy wrote in an essay for last winter’s edition of Vanderbilt’s ASB newsletter.
“Realizing that one person’s ‘poverty’ is another person’s ‘home’ became a personal revelation and a personal gift. Since that experience, I dare not judge another by thinking that I might have even the slightest inkling of what is best for them.”
Since graduating from Vanderbilt, Chris Kyle’s medical studies and career have taken him far and wide. While attending medical school at Louisiana State University, he also took night classes and completed a master’s degree in public health. As a medical student he participated in a volunteer medical trip to Zimbabwe, was president of a student-run homeless clinic, and helped form an international medical exchange program. During his medical residency in Miami, he took a volunteer medical trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and then did an oncology/robotic surgery fellowship in Melbourne, Australia, before settling in Oregon with his wife—fellow Vanderbilt ASB alumna Dr. Brooke Lambard Kyle, BS’96.
His first of four Alternative Spring Break trips was to Lima, Peru, and he remembers one of the site leaders discussing the difference between a do-gooder and an activist. “He said, ‘A do-gooder goes into a soup kitchen and asks, “Where’s the ladle? How can I help?” An activist walks into a soup kitchen and asks, “Why is this here? What are the conditions that have created the need for a soup kitchen in this community?”’”
The beauty of ASB rests in the fact that participants continue to grow and learn after their return to life as normal. My views regarding poverty and immigration are dramatically different now.
—Nehal Mehta, Owen Graduate School of Management first-year student and 2011 co-chair of ASB
Alternative Spring Break, Kyle adds, addresses both sides of that equation. “We are ‘do-gooders’ in that we are providing hundreds or even thousands of man-hours of service to a community. In and of itself, that’s admirable. What I value about ASB is that it’s structured to ask the deeper questions—like the activist.”
Donovan Miller, BA’98, now a tax manager at a public accounting firm in Dallas, was involved with Alternative Spring Break all four years. “I was what you would call a ‘lifer,’” says Miller. “After my first trip I never considered doing anything else” for spring break.
“It has been 13 years since I last served,” he adds, “and there are many times each year that I recall the experiences I had in ASB. It was amazing to see the outpouring of support from the communities in which we served. One of my fondest memories occurred on my last trip as a site leader for eastern Kentucky. Many in the group were first-time participants. As much as I had tried to explain what a powerful experience ASB could be, it was not until the end of the week that I could see just how much they understood what I had been trying to convey.”
“There is something to be said for taking people out of their environment,” agrees Laura Mann Magevney. “It’s easy to go around with blinders on and not really look around. ASB really takes students out of their comfort zones and teaches them about an area. And once those blinders are off, you begin to look at your own community in a different way.”