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Week of February 21, 2011

Alternative spring break no longer a student-only tradition

Spring break is known for annual pilgrimage that takes some students away from the cold winter temperatures to the beaches of Mexico, cruises in the Caribbean or the historic streets of Europe.

Increasingly, however, the popular Alternative Spring Break (ASB) programs offer students the opportunity to spend their vacations in oft less visited locales, participating in volunteer projects, cultural exchanges and educational activities.

Above, School of Information master’s students Ann McWilliams-Piraino and Wen-Hui Kao volunteer at the Paley Center for Media in New York City, where they helped create a reference archive and handled questions from filmmakers, directors, TV networks and the general public. Photo by Kelly Kowatch. Below, students paint houses in New Orleans as part of volunteer work with Onsite Relief. Both trips were part of U-M’s Alternative Spring Break program.
 Photo courtesy the Ginsberg Center.

And U-M students are not the only ones taking advantage of ASB programs. University faculty and staff also are involved in the planning, oversight and participation in spring break trips, and have become valuable assets to the quality and diversity of many ASB programs.

The School of Information’s Alternative Spring Break (SI ASB) provides opportunities for graduate students to volunteer in information-related nonprofit organizations in large metropolitan areas.

Faculty and staff members also have gotten involved in the SI ASB program. Kelly Kowatch, assistant director of the School of Information’s Career Development Office, travels each year to an SI ASB site.

“Over and over, I’ve seen how students’ participation in this program can truly be a life-changing experience,” Kowatch says. “It’s also been rewarding to see the significant impact our program has had on the hosting organizations.”

Opportunities for ASB projects range from participating in a workshop at the American Indian Association of Illinois in Chicago to organizing a rare image database for the Folger Shakespeare Company in Washington, D.C.

Some students also participate in fundraising projects to financially support the SI ASB experience. From book sales to talent shows to utilizing the networking site, students already have raised $10,000 of their $30,000 goal.

“My experience in ASB gave me more confidence in professional settings,” says Maggie Hughes, a second-year Master of Science in Information student with specializations in library and information services, and archives and records management. During her ASB, Hughes volunteered for the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., where she worked with Capitol Hill administrators and committee staff on a wide variety of records issues, and provided reference assistance to the public on the open records of Congress.

“I think it helped me to recognize the skills that I have learned at SI and to be confident in my abilities,” Hughes says. “It showed me what issues real archives face on a day-to-day basis and how they are dealing with them.”

After 20 years of existence, the Ginsberg Center’s SERVE-sponsored U-M Alternative Spring Break (UM-ASB) program is one of the largest in the country, with more than 450 students participating annually. Students attend bi-weekly meetings in the fall and weekly sessions in winter semester for trip planning and education on the culture and history of one of 35 assigned domestic trip locations.

“The program works to address a number of different social issues,” says Sara Gibbs, SERVE and UM-ASB adviser. From tutoring youth in Chicago to combating poverty in rural Appalachia, the span of the UM-ASB program knows no bounds, she says.

The UM-ASB program also allows faculty and staff to lend a helping hand. “Faculty and staff are welcome to apply and join trips,” Gibbs says. While the program is under the leadership of the student participants, faculty and staff “bring a unique perspective to the group that can help everyone have a deeper learning experience.”

The program not only helps communities in need, but also challenges its participants to grow as people. Before, during and after each trip, returnees are asked to reflect on their experiences. “By participating in this kind of immersive working experience, they have a profound learning experience,” Gibbs says.

Whether it’s building houses or volunteering at an art museum, each experience is meaningful for the program’s participants and coordinators, Kowatch says. “More of our students each year are choosing to work in the Detroit area, where they’re literally making a ‘Michigan difference.’”



Amanda Krugliak, arts curator, Institute for the Humanities, on returning to Ann Arbor: “I love where I’ve landed. Perhaps I don’t know what’s coming next, and I never expected to find myself back here, but I have a sense of what matters.”


The School of Art & Design Emeritus Faculty Exhibition is presented from noon-7 p.m. through Feb. 25 at Work • Ann Arbor, 306 S. State St.

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