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Not your typical spring breakers

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Jackie Blanchette and Virginia Fuhrmark didn’t spend their spring break with drinks in their hands. For many hours of the week, they held paintbrushes instead.

The two juniors at Southern Oregon University, along with the nine peers they led on a service trip to Phoenix, Arizona, painted, weeded and cleaned out houses and properties owned by a local transitional housing organization called House of Refuge.

“I just thought, oh, might as well spend my break helping others,” said Fuhrmark, a biology major, who said the work around housing and food insecurity aligns with her personal passions, if not her career aspirations.

For these students entering the final term of the school year at Southern Oregon University, a relaxing and rejuvenating spring break didn’t involve traveling for pleasure. Instead, they participated in “alternative” breaks, rolling up their sleeves and pausing to reflect throughout a week of volunteer work and play.

“Going on a trip is a short-term thing,” said Jill Smedstad, SOU’s environmental and community engagement coordinator, who oversees the alternative break program. “But I really often see a lot of long-term outcomes, as far as students feeling more confident in their ability to impact their community.”

SOU students had a choice between two trips arranged this year, including the Phoenix experience that Blanchette and Fuhrmark coordinated together.

Liv Mitchell and Brooke Pitner, both sophomores, co-led the other trip, to Astoria, during which students worked with seabirds at the Wildlife Center of the North Coast.

The two met during an alternative break in 2018, doing trail maintenance and other wilderness restoration.

“That’s why I think we wanted to do more of a nature and wildlife one, because we had a great experience,” Mitchell said.

Amid arranging transportation, lodging and meals, the co-leaders also have the freedom and responsibility to decide which organizations to partner with throughout the week.

Mitchell said that the wildlife center they chose aligned with values she had (she’s an environmental science major).

“We wanted to make sure if we were going to give our time, it would be for people who were going to do the right thing for animals,” she said.

More than once, Smedstad, one of the staff advisers who accompanied students, and the participants themselves describe alternative breaks as a kind of antidote to stereotypes about how young people spend their vernal week of vacation.

“The reason it uses the term ‘alternative’ is because of the stereotype of college students on spring break as like partying in Cancun,” Smedstad said, “and so it was this alternative to that — showing the best of what students can be doing and using their spring break to benefit the community as opposed to just partying.”

Part of the experience also includes reflection on the context of the work the students spend their days doing. There again, the student co-leads take charge.

Before their team headed out for Phoenix, Fuhrmark and Blanchette had the students read material and watch a video on experiencing homelessness as a college student.

Throughout the week, they’ve also spent time each day unpacking “how we felt during the day big things that happened, personal feelings for the students,” Fuhrmark said.

She added that their preparation process also included studying the community where they spent the week.

“We’re not blindly coming in,” she said. “For us it has been really important to sort of educate ourselves so we don’t cause any other sort of harm.”

Alternative breaks are far from exclusive to SOU, which has had its program in place since 2007. Universities across the nation organize them.

A few Ashland organizations, including Ashland Parks and Recreation and Willow-Witt Ranch, were treated to the help of nine Oregon State University students who spent their alternative spring break, centered on environmental conservation, in the area.

Nolan Gunter, a mathematical economics major and one of the student co-leaders, said that the people they worked with were adaptive to their needs, so the help felt mutual.

“A lot of participants just say that they want to do something meaningful with their break and instead of just staying at home or kind of relaxing, they want to feel like even when they’re not in school, they’re being productive and helping a community,” said Gunter.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Oregon State University students on an alternative spring break work Sunday to remove invasive yellow-flag iris from a pond on WIllow-Witt Ranch. Photo courtesy of Nolan Gunter.
Nolan Gunter, a sophomore at Oregon State University, is one of a number of spring breakers who chose to spend their vernal vacation serving and learning on a trip to Ashland.Thumbnail