A mountain in Peru with ruins next to it.

Spring break isn’t just for parties. At NYU, civic-minded students dive into service-led learning and community engagement with the Alternative Breaks program. Through Alternative Breaks, students travel to another state or country in cohorts of eight to twelve. There, they engage in service-led learning to collaborate with local organizations on issues like human rights, the environment, poverty, public health, food insecurity, and community development.

Most Alternative Breaks span six intensive days over NYU’s spring break week in March, though a few take place in January and run slightly longer. In 2024 students will serve in 13 locations, including:

  • Cusco, Peru, where they’ll tutor local students and explore Machu Picchu
  • Cape Town, South Africa, where they’ll focus on sustainable community development
  • Antigua, Guatemala, where they’ll build ecofarming infrastructure
  • Tenerife, Canary Islands, where they’ll work on cetacean conservation efforts (helping whales and dolphins!)
The Chicago River with a walkway running above it.

Immersive Learning

Participants make concrete contributions to a community during their Alternative Break. What’s more, they gain a deep understanding of both a culture and an issue. In other words, it’s the ultimate immersive learning experience.

Admitted students attend five prep sessions before their trip, where they learn about basic logistical information, the history and culture of their site, and the social issue they’ll address. Students gain a rich understanding of the context they’ll work in through these sessions. That way, they can reduce their footprint and maximize their impact on the community. Once at their site, participants dive into on-the-ground service. And, after each day, students engage in a group discussion on what they accomplished and learned.

Winnie Zheng, a Tandon School of Engineering student in the five-year BS/MS Computer Science dual degree program, was a site leader for a 2023 Chicago-based Alternative Breaks site that focused on urban sustainability. There, she gained perspective on both the community she served and her own relationship to urban infrastructure. “I learned about resource distribution within an urban environment and the history of housing instability in the surrounding neighborhoods,” she says. “There’s such a long history of discrimination and injustice. Learning about that has really widened my perspective on what’s happening in our world and our country.”

A brick building in Boston.

Service Without Distractions

It’s important to note that these trips are a rare opportunity to be fully of service without any distractions. “What’s nice about this program is that our focus was on the work for the entire week,” Winnie notes. “I wasn’t thinking about homework or midterms. I could put all of my willpower and focus into the program to get the most out of a week’s experience immersed in direct service.”

Roman Sloan, a Global Liberal Studies and Spanish double major who traveled with the Boston-based Alternative Breaks cohort in 2023, agrees with Winnie. “You’re using your brain in a different way,” Roman says. “Instead of doing schoolwork, you’re thinking more about society, your place in it, and how the world works.”

Long-Lasting Benefits

After a week of intensive service-learning, students come away with an additional bonus: new friendships. “I’m a big introvert,” Roman says. “So I was afraid of getting drained, being in a different city with 10 other students 24/7. But, once we got there, it felt like I had known them forever.”

Winnie’s cohort had a similar experience. “We had a lot of vulnerable and deep discussions that drew us so much closer together,” she says. “I got to be friends with people from different schools and backgrounds.” Plus, the time focused on service can ignite a passion that extends beyond Alternative Breaks. “The biggest impact this program had on me was that I came back feeling restless,” concludes Winnie. “This was just the beginning of the social work that I want to do.”