Students Put Down Beer, Take Up Causes

A sleepless week of wet T-shirt contests, tequila shots and tanning on the beach is the cliché of collegiate debauchery known as spring break.

But some students this year want to come back from vacation with more than tan lines and a hickey. Philanthropic spring breaks are increasingly popular among college students who say nothing is more fulfilling than volunteering.

Rachael Massey, a junior at Colorado State University, is leading a trip to New York City to do "whatever is needed" at an AIDS hospice.

"I've done the Mexico spring break thing, and I realized how empty those trips are," said Massey, who is spending her second break volunteering. "I now come back so fulfilled. It's a very intense week of growth, learning and helping. As much as we give, we get double that back from people we help."

Florida Alternative Breaks, an organization that helps students at the University of Florida find volunteer opportunities, has 84 students going on seven different trips this spring. The group reports it has received many more applications than usual.

"We actually had a waiting list this year of about 40 people, and we haven't seen those kinds of numbers before," said Colette Taylor, assistant director of student activities. "Normally we get about 100 applications, but this year we received around 150."

The students will go to various locations in the Southeast and help with issues ranging from wildlife in the Florida Keys to teen pregnancy in Charleston, S.C.

"We're finding we've got more students saying they want to be involved and do volunteer work, that they're not just in college to party," Taylor said.

Some attribute the increased interest in volunteerism to the nation's more self-reflective mood since Sept. 11.

At Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge, which builds homes for needy people, registration is up by about 1,000 volunteers over last year, bringing the number to about 10,000, according to Habitat spokeswoman Kimberly Moore.

"About two dozen students at NYU were going to take a ski trip to Europe and decided to work on a Habitat house in Long Beach, Calif., instead," Moore said. "This was directly because of Sept. 11. They wanted to do something that mattered instead of being self-indulgent."

Mary Golden, assistant director of Service-Learning and Volunteer Programs at Colorado State University, this year planned six spring break trips of 10 students each. The programs range from working with Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes in Wyoming, to helping patients at an AIDS hospice in New York City.

"A lot of the students say they want to do something meaningful with their time," she said. "They're not into the beer and beaches scene, or they've already done that."

And at least two of the students get to be trip leaders who spend an entire year planning and organizing the adventures in volunteerism.

"It's a richer experience. Instead of just being a tourist they really get to see how a community lives," Golden said. "We call it an immersion experience, because they live and work in the community with community members."

Massey organized the New York trip with her fellow group leaders after Sept. 11 because they wanted to help the community in some way. Ground Zero has been so inundated with offers that they weren't accepting volunteers, so the students looked elsewhere.

"We're working at the Rivington House, doing recreational type activities and anything else the facility needs a group of college students to accomplish, like scrubbing floors," Massey said.

Whatever program students choose, the payoffs can be long lasting.

"We've had students tell us that it's changed the way they look at life and the direction they want their lives to go in," said Habitat's Moore. "They come to the conclusion that life is more about what you can give to people rather than what you can get."