A Local Commitment to Catalyze Lifelong Service

Caroline Ouwerkerk, Assistant Director, Center for Social Concern, Johns Hopkins University

May 18, 2016

When the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Concern launched an Alternative Break program in 2008, we made a made an intentional commitment to live into the mission of our office, of “service with others” rather than “service to others,” and capitalize on our local community. Our students come from every state and over 60 countries, so a local alternative break is an opportunity for them to explore a city that in many cases is not where they grew up.

We now run seven trips annually, all of which take place within Baltimore City limits. Our students load their suitcases into vans early in the morning on the first day of the trip, just like they would if they were heading to the airport for a “traditional” alternative break, but rather than flying hundreds of miles to another part of the country or the world, they drive three miles down the street to a retreat center operated by a local church. There, students cook and eat together, sleep in 20-person bunks, and develop deep friendships with people they may never have run into on campus. Each trip focuses on a specific social justice theme, and students serve with multiple organizations over the course of the week to get a sense of the different aspects of the topic. Evening reflections provide an opportunity for students to process their experiences.

One of the intended outcomes of the Alternative Break movement is a shift in the participant’s level of engagement, referred to by Breakaway, the leading nonprofit promoting best practices of Alternative Breaks, as the “Active Citizen Continuum.” We see students move along this continuum from being well-intentioned but uninformed participants, to asking bigger questions, to leading social change. This continuum is a useful grounding principle for all civic engagement work, with the idea that various experiences, including alternative breaks, could serve as catalyzing forces, moving students along this continuum. By grounding our program in our local Baltimore community, students can use the experience as a jumping-off point for a commitment to service that can be sustained long-term, as students do service with local organizations during their break week, then decide to continue their involvement once the break is over by returning to the organization on a regular basis over time. Several students who participated in our Immigrant and Refugee Rights Alternative Break in January did just that—after volunteering with an afterschool tutoring program for children of refugee families, the students joined our Refugee Action Project student group upon returning to campus and have been volunteering weekly ever since. For other students, the ideas and issues they grapple with during the alternative break can shift their entire course of study here at Hopkins—one student who had intended to be pre-med added a social policy minor after participating in the Community Development Alternative Break this spring. One participant reported that the local focus of our Alternative Breaks is important because “It is easy to get caught up in the ‘Hopkins Bubble’ and forget about the community around us…taking a moment to explore and reflect in this way [through an Alternative Break] can be life-altering.”

Fostering a deeper connection with our local community, catalyzed by a week or a weekend of immersive service, encourages students to think about their involvement in Baltimore beyond the edges of the quad, and creates opportunities for continued involvement for the rest of the student’s time in Baltimore—through graduation and beyond.


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