Hundreds of students participate in the NYU Alternative Breaks (AB) program each year, using their spring breaks to create meaningful change in communities across the globe. Students make waves in and out of the classroom, whether conducting cutting-edge research or giving a life-changing performance. It’s no surprise then that many volunteer for the AB program to make a difference around the world. After a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program will return in spring 2023.


Katie Dolcimascolo, a Secondary Education major, spent two spring breaks in the Dominican Republic with Alternative Breaks. There, she worked with local teenagers to construct levees that prevent flooding. “AB is a special kind of program because of what we do before we ever get on a plane,” she explains. “We try to combat ‘voluntourism,’ where people travel the world doing short-term volunteer work that sometimes does more harm than good. We talk about the privilege we bring when we go to these places. And we learn a lot about our communities and the issues facing them so we can be of the most use while we’re there.”

A female student shows her iPhone to eight children.
Alternative Breaks students touring a construction site.

Ready, Set, Engage

The AB program began in 2005 when NYU students sought to provide aid following Hurricane Katrina. Since then, it has grown to include domestic and international service opportunities with dozens of partner organizations. “We choose partners based on student passion and interest. And over the years, we built lasting relationships with those organizations,” explains Shannon Rush, program administrator for Alternative Breaks. Before heading to the destination, all AB participants attend weekly meetings to learn about their location, culture, and social justice issue. “We really want to make sure folks are well versed and feel comfortable and confident before we send them out into the field,” adds Rush. Once students are on-site, the program continues to emphasize education and reflection through daily debriefs and discussions.

Handmade posters welcoming newcomers hang on a brick wall.

An Experience That Resonates

Each AB trip includes 12 students (two site leaders and 10 participants) as well as one or two staff advisers. Next spring, these cohorts will tackle issues from food insecurity and youth development to animal welfare and immigration rights. Connor Borden, who concentrated in urban health and development, was a site leader for a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There, his group prepared food for underserved residents. “The experience helped broaden my understanding of public health, food justice, and my field of study,” he recalls. “Now my goal is to spend my life working to address the issues that matter most.”

YWCA protesters march outside for a rally to eliminate racism and empower women.

Many Ways to Make a Difference

If you’re interested in the Alternative Breaks program, all you need to do is click “apply.” The application consists of a few brief questions, and it is available through NYU Engage. And if you love your AB experience, you can come back the next year—and the year after that. In fact, some undergraduates start as participants, head trips as site leads the next year, and then serve as coordinators.

Finally, if a week away seems like too much, NYU Service offers plenty of other service-related opportunities. Volunteer for a single day, tutor children from low-income families throughout the year, or explore virtual service opportunities. However you want to give back, NYU is here to make it happen.

Student photographs by Tianxiong Hu, Safwan Akbar, Charles Lee, Samuel Kim, and Aaron Ho.

Cindy Nowicki is a writer and content strategist in NYU’s Office of Marketing Communications. She enjoys meeting with students to learn about their experiences and telling the stories of all the wonderful things happening at NYU. Cindy holds a BA in English from the University of Richmond and studied English literature at the University of Bristol, England. A Brooklyn native, she still discovers new things about New York City every day. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons.