Not Your Typical Vacation: Alternative Spring Break at U.Va.

New cities, changed perspectives and the dangers of “voluntourism” – what is it like to go on an ASB trip at U.Va.?

Not Your Typical Vacation: Alternative Spring Break at U.Va.

Not Your Typical Vacation: Alternative Spring Break at U.Va.

New cities, changed perspectives and the dangers of "voluntourism" – what is it like to go on an ASB trip at U.Va.?

  1. We believe in Nashville. #asbuva2016

    We believe in Nashville. #asbuva2016
  2. Students at the University of the Virginia like to say that we live by the ethos of "work hard, play hard." Sure, we're often ranked as the #2 public university in the country, but we love to let lose and live it up. And isn't the most ideal time to turn up during spring break?
  3. For many UVa students, though, spring break is the ideal time to pack up, hit the road… and volunteer. Alternative Spring Break, the widely popular student organization at UVa, runs dozens of trips to locations across the country and Central America. While locations such as Biloxi, MS, Asheville, NC, and Xela, Guatemala might not be your stereotypical vacation destinations, ASB trips allow students to explore these lesser known areas while contributing to the communities in a positive way.
  4. This past spring break, I went on one such trip to Nashville, TN. As a fourth-year, I'd heard so many good experiences about Alternative Spring Break that I didn't want to graduate without participating on a trip. So I forwent any typical vacation plans, signed the ASB pledge to not drink or do drugs over my spring break, and jumped in a car with four people I'd hardly met, arriving in the Music City eight hours later.
  5. While a large portion of our time was spent doing typical tourist activities – the Country Music Hall of Fame, line dancing, Centennial Park and more – we also spent our mornings Monday-Thursday working in a slightly chilly wood shop located behind a nearby high school. I sawed, drilled and painted, making furniture and theatrical sets for some of Nashville's underfunded and overcrowded public schools. Overall, the atmosphere was lighthearted. My team enjoyed chatting with the retirees who ran the charity and spent most of their mornings throughout the year in the wood shop. When we left Thursday afternoon, the men expressed their gratitude for helping them crank out the much-needed items at a faster pace than normal.
  6. On Friday morning, however, we had what was perhaps the most eye-opening experience – a chance to sit in on classes at one of the lowest performing high schools in the Nashville area, where a UVa alum now works as a teacher. That morning provided a moment of altered clarity for me – the teacher spoke of his constant battle to connect with his students and understand their pain. He described students who were suspended for bringing guns on school grounds, even though they only possessed a weapon because they wanted to protect their families who lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods. He mentioned how he altered his lesson plan to focus on the Ferguson riots in fall 2014, since those events clearly spoke to the day-to-day experiences of his students far more than any textbook lecture.
  7. Though my ASB team had certainly made a small beneficial impact in the wood shop, new shelves weren't going to change racial prejudices or socioeconomic obstacles. The issues plaguing Nashville's public school system run deep, making it impossible for a team of 8-10 students to significantly scratch their surface in only a week, no matter what they are doing.

  8. Last month, The New York Times' Jacob Kushner wrote an article entitled "The Voluntourist's Dilemma." The buzzword "voluntourism" has been popping up more and more recently and this article suggested that, unless you have a specific and coveted skill, going abroad to volunteer can be condescending, selfish and even harmful to local communities.
  9. In forceful language, this article condemns the massive industry built around volunteering abroad and the misguided optimism of trip participants:
  10. "Perhaps we are fooling ourselves. Unsatisfying as it may be, we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer. Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills."
  11. On a more sarcastic note, The Onion has also commented on the stereotypical voluntourist's obsession with social media in an article entitled "6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman's Facebook Profile Picture." As evidenced by the pictures on this page, myself and many other trip participants posted freely on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook about our trips.
  12. With all this running through my mind, I've wondered – is ASB considered voluntourism, despite its domestic focus? And if it does… well, does it matter? Struggling with my own opinion, I went out and asked a few fellow ASB participants and trip leaders for their perspectives.
  13. #Repost @kimberlyjean96 with @repostapp
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I love robbery and fraud but not as much as I love these scammers. Thanks for making Atlanta the ASBest. #asbuva2016

    #Repost @kimberlyjean96 with @repostapp
    ・・・
    I love robbery and fraud but not as much as I love these scammers. Thanks for making Atlanta the ASBest. #asbuva2016
  14. Kimberly O'Keefe // Second-Year // Atlanta, GA

  15. "I think people may go into it with the mentality that they're doing it for the service, but after the week realize they're doing it for the travel. If the point of this organization was mainly the service, we would spend the week in Charlottesville volunteering in our own community rather than blindly inserting ourselves elsewhere. That's why ASB advertises itself as 'Change Your Perspective' making the focus on your personal growth, rather than the impact of the service you're doing – because changing the world in a week is unrealistic.
  16. That's why ASB advertises itself as 'Change Your Perspective' making the focus on your personal growth, rather than the impact of the service you're doing – because changing the world in a week is unrealistic.

  17. I think one of the differences matters in how you view it. If you go around bragging about how you spent your spring break helping others in need while your friends lounged around at home, you aren't getting the message of ASB and are doing an injustice to the service aspect… If you go in with an open mindset and the willingness to think critically, rather than look for praise for 'giving up your spring break,' I think you're a lot more likely to get a balanced experience from the travel and the volunteer aspects."
  18. Proud of this crew for serving the Austin community over the past two days #asbuva2016

    Proud of this crew for serving the Austin community over the past two days #asbuva2016
  19. Adam Ghazzawi // Third-Year // Austin, Texas

  20. "My volunteer experience through ASB has been filled with high and lows – days I have felt useless and days where I did not want to leave the nonprofit. In Austin, our impact was made by helping the local community food bank serve hundreds of people waiting in line for hours to receive a box of food. We painted an apartment unit for an organization providing transitional housing for HIV and AIDS patients. We spent a day at a homeless shelter interacting with the local homeless population and providing administrative services to an overworked staff. We wrote thank you cards to those who attended a charitable fundraiser for the Livestrong Foundation. Our impact was admittedly small but our experiences provoked continued conversation on the topics of homelessness, food insecurity, and nonprofit services.
  21. The most important impact that can come as a result of an ASB trip is a greater awareness of different problems and a willingness to combat these problems in ways we see most fit.


  22. Inspired by our experiences, one of our participants came back from Austin and is now beginning the process to serve in Madison House’s day shelter. The most important impact that can come as a result of an ASB trip is a greater awareness of different problems and a willingness to combat these problems in ways we see most fit."
  23. Katie Yung // Second-Year // Los Angeles, California

  24. "To be honest, the location of the trip was definitely one of the deciding factors for me — I've always wanted to go to California. However, the type of service was equally as significant in my decision — I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, which in this case was human services. In the end, regardless of what reason why someone might have gone on the trip, it is an eye-opening experience, and we all learn so much about service and are changed by the service we do, whether we expect it or not."
  25. #Repost @katemarie423 with @repostapp
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here's to daily rosebushes, the curious george soundtrack, plain zoos, and a wonderful week of service with these guys on the virginia road trip #asbuva2016

    #Repost @katemarie423 with @repostapp
    ・・・
    here’s to daily rosebushes, the curious george soundtrack, plain zoos, and a wonderful week of service with these guys on the virginia road trip #asbuva2016
  26. Kate Westman // Third-Year // Virginia Road Trip

  27. "Most of my conversations with people about why they do ASB involve some mention of just having a meaningful spring break. A lot of people like the idea of contributing positively to some community while getting the chance to explore a new area, so it's difficult to separate the two, and I don't think it's a bad thing so long as people are open to learning in those experiences. Even those who are primarily interested in volunteering need to be open, too, because you're likely to encounter some boundaries while volunteering (such as finding challenges to your comfort levels or preconceived notions about something), and you grow in learning your limits and in letting the community teach you. I believe service is what gives ASB a purpose, and it just happens to be conveniently paired with the chance to travel."
  28. I believe service is what gives ASB a purpose, and it just happens to be conveniently paired with the chance to travel.


  29. This is not an obvious conclusion on the possible connection between "voluntourism" and Alternative Spring Break. While the legitimate negative impacts of voluntourism exist, ASB's implication in the issue can be continuously debated and opinions will change based on experience. However, these statements do make clear what ASB's defined purpose is – to support personal growth and to alter perspectives. Teams of 8-10 students aren't going to instill permanent change in a new community in just a week. However, the sights seen, the people met, and the issues explored can hopefully permanently change personal viewpoints and inspire members to continue service in the future.
  30. Though I'd always possessed an interest in education, the morning spent at that particular high school showed me more about education inequality in America than I'd learned in twelve years at public schools in Henrico, VA. To speak with a teacher as clearly passionate and skilled as the UVa alum – and who still struggled on a day-to-day basis to reach his students, despite over a dozen years of experience – motivated me to keep education issues on my personal radar as I moved on and graduated from this university. As I relocate to Washington, DC in June – a city whose school system also faces intense inequality issues – I hope to continue volunteering with education, in my own small way.
  31. That is true benefit of a program such as ASB. While the short-term gains may not be substantial, it encourages a pattern of volunteer work in the future that can leave a longstanding impact in local communities.

  32. "For the great doesn't happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together." – Vincent Van Gogh

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