Fostering College Students’ Civic Commitment through Alternative Breaks

Glenn A. Bowen
Independent Scholar, USA


Higher education institutions in the United States sponsor alternative breaks to give students an opportunity to assist underserved communities during spring and fall/winter breaks.  As students address social issues during alternative breaks, many are likely to commit themselves to long-term involvement in community service.  This article is based on research conducted at a public, comprehensive university in Western North Carolina.  Case study methods were used to explore the learning/development outcomes of the university’s alternative break program and the influence of alternative break experiences on students’ continued involvement in civic activities.  The research revealed that, despite the limitations of short-term service projects, students who participated in alternative breaks became sensitive to social issues and seemed committed to community causes.  Three specific recommendations are offered.  Among them, reflection is highlighted as a process designed to help students derive meaning from their experiences and develop positive attitudes to civic engagement.

Alternative Breaks

Institutions of higher education in the United States have created or sponsored numerous programs to prepare students for roles as active citizens.  Alternative breaks engage students in community service projects that meet immediate needs.  Although much has been written about such programs (e.g., DuPre, 2010; Gumpert & Kraybill-Greggo, 2005; Rhoads & Neururer, 1998), not enough is known about the relationship between alternative break experiences and students’ continued involvement in civic activities.  This article will explore an alternative break program whose purpose includes exposing students to situations in which they can become civically engaged.

Alternative breaks, especially alternative spring break (ASB), mark a new tradition for many higher education institutions (Rhoads & Neururer, 1998; Sandeen, 2003; Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999).  In alternative breaks, students typically travel to underserved communities, where they work on intensive projects addressing social issues, particularly poverty and attendant problems such as homelessness, hunger, and illiteracy.  Such trips are an alternative to the old spring break tradition of college students indulging and carousing in beach resorts and other public places.

The Campus Compact (2010)–a national organization that advances and supports the civic purposes of higher education–reported that 67 percent of the colleges and universities responding to its national survey organized alternative breaks in 2009.  Alternative breaks remained fourth among the top 15 campus service/civic engagement programs organized by its member institutions (compared to one-day service projects, 84%; nonprofit internships/practicum, 73%; and discipline-based service-learning courses, 73%).  Some colleges and universities organize both spring and fall/winter break trips; a growing number sponsor not only domestic trips but international trips as well.

The benefits of alternative breaks to students and host communities have been discussed in the literature (Armstrong, 2006; Boyle-Baise & Langford, 2004; DuPre, 2010; Porter & Monard, 2001; Rhoads & Neururer, 1998).  Based on an early analysis of alternative spring breaks, Sandeen (2003) noted that “students not only learned about the endless needs of people less fortunate than themselves; they also learned how difficult and important it is to correct social injustice” (p. 45).  In addition, the intensive group processes of participation and reflection can foster “transformative” learning (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, & Stephens, 2003, p. 245; Gumpert & Kraybill-Greggo, 2005, p. 111) and the civic commitment of individual members (Youniss & Yates, 1997).

However, while acknowledging that civic commitment could manifest itself in plans for future service (Gelmon, Holland, Driscoll, Spring, & Kerrigan, 2001), some authors have questioned the efficacy of such short-term projects.  Van Engen (2000), for instance, has observed that because short-term project groups often want to solve problems quickly, they can make people in host communities feel incapable of doing things on their own.  Furthermore, according to Van Engen, students participating in short-term mission trips (similar to service trips) have been known to describe their experiences as “life-changing” when they were giving a mere emotional response to a situation they did not really understand.  Helping students make sense of their experiences in a way that will foster civic engagement “even when their potential impact in the short run is in question” (Colby et al., 2003, p. 245) is a role that could prove challenging for inexperienced reflection facilitators.

Civic Responsibility and Commitment

Civic responsibility and commitment to service are treated herein as synonymous.   Commitment to service is one of the intended outcomes for students participating in civic engagement projects.  In addition to plans for future service, indicators of students’ commitment to service include (a) attitude toward current service experiences and (b) reaction to the demands and challenges of service (Gelmon et al., 2001).  Civic responsibility outcomes include students’ commitment to (a) participating in a community action program, (b) helping others who are in difficulty, (c) helping to promote racial understanding, (d) becoming involved in programs to help clean up the environment, (e) influencing social values, (f) influencing the political structure, and (g) serving the community in other ways (Astin & Sax, 1998).

Community service, especially curriculum-based service or service learning, has long been linked to civic responsibility (Jacoby, 1996; Myers-Lipton, 1998; Rutter & Newmann, 1989). Service learning, which complements and enhances what students learn in a classroom, is employed as a strategy to achieve the civic engagement goals of higher education institutions.  As students grasp opportunities for the practical application of knowledge and skills in community settings, they sometimes examine their life’s purpose, clarify their values, and reflect on their roles as citizens.  That process, it seems, can engender students’ commitment to civic engagement.

Still, proponents of both course-based and co-curricular community service have suggested that students will not benefit fully from an experience if it is not of sufficient length (Bowen, 2010; Colby et al., 2003).  Besides, as Van Engen (2000) has argued, short-term trips could even do more harm than good to the community unless they mark the beginning of a long-term relationship between volunteers and the community.  Indeed, civic commitment is viewed largely as engagement sustained over time (Colby et al.), in many cases with participants moving from charity to social justice and from service to the elimination of need (Jacoby, 1996).

Western Carolina’s Program

Western Carolina University (WCU) is a midsize, comprehensive institution (with 9,400 students) in the University of North Carolina System.  As part of its civic engagement efforts, WCU offers opportunities for students to participate in alternative breaks in both the fall and spring, either as a component of a course or as a co-curricular activity.  Students engage in direct, “hands-on” service that often addresses critical but unmet social needs.  Furthermore, participants learn about problems faced by members of communities with whom they usually would have little or no direct contact.  Selected students serve as site leaders for projects while staff members function as trip supervisors.

One of this university’s earliest alternative spring break trips took place in 2006, when a team of 16 students and three staff members journeyed to the Bay St. Louis/Waveland area of Mississippi, where they assisted with Hurricane Katrina-related rehabilitation projects.  The WCU volunteers provided 750 hours of service, performing repair and rebuilding tasks on 11 houses and supervising children at a daycare center.  The university’s first alternative fall break trip, in 2007, saw a small team of volunteers working with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity (on Johns Island, SC), the third oldest Habitat affiliate in the world.

Over the years, WCU volunteers have traveled also to Atlanta, GA; Myrtle Beach, SC; and Lexington, KY for fall break.  For spring break, they have rendered service also to communities in Pensacola, FL; Philadelphia, PA; Chicago, IL; Nashville, TN; and Norfolk, VA.  The university’s Center for Service Learning has coordinated alternative break projects with social service agencies (e.g., food banks and a transitional housing agency); churches and other faith-based organizations (notably Habitat for Humanity and Catholic Charities); tutoring/mentoring programs; public park services; and various community-based organizations.  Volunteers usually participate in several different projects over a six- to eight-day period.

The Center for Service Learning also has sponsored spring break trips abroad — “Project Panama” in 2006 and 2008, and a trip to Costa Rica in 2008.  In Costa Rica, volunteers took part in an ecological project, helping to preserve a rain forest and to restore nesting areas for sea turtles.  Project Panama encompassed various subprojects, including school repairs, health screenings, and cultural activities mainly in Chiriqui province (in the western region of the Central American country).  In 2008, a 32-member team of students and faculty members, together with medical personnel, spent 10 days in Panama.  The team delivered medical and school supplies (valued at nearly $4,000), provided medical care, and constructed or repaired buildings (three schools, a mission, and an orphanage).  Cash donations totaling $6,700 were presented to local organizations that year.  These projects “reflect exemplary collaboration” among the university, its surrounding community, and partners abroad, designed to “prepare students for roles as active, engaged citizens of the world” (Bowen, 2010).

Like many other American colleges and universities, WCU uses the “BreakAway Model” for organizing and implementing alternative breaks.  BreakAway is a nonprofit organization (currently based in Atlanta) that promotes “quality” alternative breaks.  Designed to encourage lifelong active citizenship, this model has eight components: (1) strong direct service, (2) orientation, (3) education, (4)training, (5) reflection, (6) reorientation, (7) diversity,alcohol- and drug-free(BreakAway: The Alternative Break Connection, n.d.).  Program evaluators at this institution have repeatedly indicated that alternative break service projects have been successful, providing students with a new outlook on life.  According to evaluators, these are typically “small projects creating big impacts.”  To date, however, the civic outcomes for student participants have not been assessed.

Research Approach

In this research project, the collection and analysis of data followed case study procedures.  A case study, which is an empirical investigation of a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context (Stake, 1995; Yin, 2009), follows systematic procedures and relies on multiple sources of evidence.  Data for this exploratory study were drawn from participants’ oral and written reflections, contained in journals and papers; informal interviews; and field notes made by key informants (staff members who served as trip supervisors).  Undergraduates as well as graduate students (n = 44) participated in the study.

The students selected for individual interviews were those not required to write reflection papers as part of the program.  Interview questions included: “What did you learn about the community through your alternative break experience?” “What did you learn about yourself through this experience?” and “How has this experience influenced your continued involvement in civic activities?”

Researcher bias was a potential limitation of this study; the lens through which this research was viewed could have been clouded by an insider’s perspective.  To guard against researcher bias, two trustworthiness techniques were employed: (1) triangulation — drawing data from various sources to generate themes or categories (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Flick, 1992) and (2) “member checking” (Creswell & Miller, p. 127).  Regarding the latter, a portion of the research report was given to some of the participants (based on their availability) to elicit feedback on the interpretation of the comments contained in journals and interview transcripts.  This technique reduced the likelihood of researcher bias while providing respondent validation of the researcher’s interpretation of the qualitative data.

Research Results

An analysis of research data from five projects implemented since 2006 yielded three main student-related themes: (1) accomplishment and pride, (2) sensitivity to social issues, and (3) commitment to community.  Each of these themes surfaced from at least 80 percent of the analyzed transcripts of interviews and reflection documents.  A fourth theme, broadened cultural perspectives, emerged from the analysis of data collected from students who took trips overseas.  For the purposes of this paper, only two themes will be discussed — the second (which overlapped with the fourth) and the third.

Sensitivity to Social Issues

In their journals and papers, most of the students (76%) indicated that they had become more sensitive to human needs and social issues as a result of their participation in alternative breaks.  A Project Panama participant “felt touched and benefited as much as the children we helped.” Moreover, one of the students, reflecting on the ASB trip to Philadelphia, declared that her “interest in social issues like poverty and hunger was heightened.”  Echoing this sentiment, a student who took the trip to Chicago stated: “I realize there’s a great need in some communities.  A lot of people, especially children, need help.  Some people don’t have enough food to eat.” Similarly, another student observed, “Many people are in need and could use a little help.  Poverty is a big problem in some areas.”

Participants in Project Panama commented on the social disparity, “the poor/wealthy divide,” according to one observer’s field notes, that was evident in the community.  Some pointed to substandard school conditions as well as the lack of good healthcare facilities and water supply.  In her reflection, one of the Project Panama participants was both emphatic and empathetic:

We Americans are fortunate; we are blessed with some many things while they seem to have so little.  We did a lot of work [in Panama], but we could have got more done if we had more time.  … We really just provided temporary relief.  A lot more needs to be done to make things better for the children.

Another participant similarly articulated “greater appreciation of our circumstances in America — what we take for granted … [while] Panamanians face obstacles we could not imagine.”  A third participant asserted that, in spite of the relatively short service period, she had a “new understanding of the harsh reality of poverty.” A student who went to Costa Rica commented on the connections between social and environmental issues.  Advocating stewardship of the environment, the student remarked that the “trip opened my eyes to how easily our world is drastically affected the actions of people.”

Several students said they wished they had a longer semester break because, whereas they became aware of problems facing the community, they did not have enough time to do much about those problems.  One student wrote:

I just wish we had more time to help out.  It’s kind of frustrating that you see so much need and you can’t do a lot in one week.  …I’m glad we had time for reflections.  I’ve been on a service trip before and we did not do any reflection.  … [Reflecting] gave me a chance to think about and talk about how we can impact the community.

Consistent with previous research findings (Sandeen, 2003), the participating students learned about the problems and needs of less-fortunate people.  However, the extent to which their new knowledge compelled them to tackle complex social issues and problems after their alternative break trip remained unclear.

Commitment to Community

Most students (82%) expressed positive attitudes toward their alternative break experiences and indicated plans for service in a variety of ways, suggesting a level of civic commitment (Astin & Sax, 1998; Gelmon et al., 2001).  The thematic analysis of journal entries, reflection papers, and interview transcripts revealed that most students felt a sense of civic duty and pride in what they were able to accomplish.  In some cases, their accomplishments provided the impetus to “find a project or a cause to support” either before graduation or afterwards.

Several students emphasized their desire to continue participating in community service, whether as part of a course or as a co-curricular activity.  Some said they would participate in other alternative break service projects.  “My involvement was great and I will probably be doing this every fall break,” one wrote.  “I now feel I have an obligation to help people … I have to pay it forward,” wrote another, with obvious reference to a novel and film in which a 12-year-old boy devises a plan to help others — not someone who has already done him a favor.  A spring break volunteer said that “without service to the community and giving back, we’re wasting our time.” In the same vein, another student stated: “I will continue to perform service.  Helping people is too important to ignore.  I will always continue to volunteer.”

A number of students, describing their experiences as “amazing” and “life-changing,” reported that they were motivated to become more active in the community.  Writing about “a trip of a lifetime,” a graduate student (who used the term “life-altering”) reported that she would often reflect on the accomplishments of social work pioneer Jane Addams, a co-founder of Chicago’s Hull House.  “And it encourages me to make a difference in my community, in my state, and in my society,” she added.  Likewise, an undergraduate, who “had an awesome time,” felt “compassion for people placed in circumstances that are far less than ideal”; and he was left with “a strong urge to get more involved [in the community].” For the most part, participants’ comments and observations were consonant with the findings of prior research (Colby et al., 2003; Gumpert & Kraybill-Greggo, 2005) regarding the transformative nature of alternative break experiences.

In their field notes, trip supervisors recorded instances of students’ involvement that reflected “concern about community issues,” “positive attitudes to civic engagement,” and “a sense of responsible citizenship.” However, a few students seemed less than satisfied with their experiences.  Back on campus, trip supervisors reasoned that students who had built high expectations based on previous reports of “life-changing” experiences were the ones most disappointed.  Further, as one supervisor stressed, an experience over such a short period (6-10 days) would “not necessarily do more than whet students’ appetite and leave them hungering for more.”

Implications and Recommendations

Alternative breaks are short-term community service trips with limitations.  Students spend time, over a very short period, doing volunteer work in communities that need assistance.  Undoubtedly, alternative breaks can contribute to community betterment and student development.  The impact of alternative break experiences on students is usually gauged through the reflective process.  In many instances, reflections probably are emotional reactions, as previously observed (Van Engen, 2000), rather than intellectual responses.  This is not meant to negate the impact of alternative break projects on students’ values, attitudes, and actions.  Perhaps alternative break participants’ claims of life-changing experiences are sometimes exaggerated.  In any case, students participating in trips abroad should return home not simply counting the blessings of American life but also being able to share their knowledge about the root causes of social problems and ways to alleviate them.

Program administrators seeking to foster college students’ civic commitment through alternative break projects should be mindful of the limitations imposed by the short-term nature of such projects.  Administrators should not expect that alternative breaks, as a matter of course, will have a lasting impact on students.  For their part, students need to temper their expectations and come to understand that there are limitations to what they can accomplish.

Students’ positive experiences notwithstanding, lengthier periods of service are likely to have a stronger, more lasting impact in terms of civic engagement.  While the sensitivity-raising potential of semester break projects is undeniable, it might take more sustained (rather than episodic) involvement for students and communities to reap the full benefits of civic engagement.  Although Gelmon and her colleagues (2001) identify “plans for future service” as an indicator of students’ commitment to service, genuine commitment goes beyond plans to actual implementation.

Three recommendations are offered with a view to student civic commitment, program enhancement, and knowledge building.  The recommendations encompass follow-up trips, purposeful reflections, and additional research.

  1. Organize follow-up trips: Organizing follow-up trips is an appropriate response to concerns that short-term projects sometimes leave students frustrated and the community only temporarily relieved of a particular problem.  Alternative break organizers and sponsors should encourage volunteers to return to communities where they had previously served.  Extending a community service project over several semester breaks (including the summer) could build long-term civic commitment among students.
  2. Facilitate purposeful reflections:  This study has demonstrated the importance of reflection.  Accordingly, alternative break trip supervisors and site leaders at other institutions should make meaningful reflection an integral component of their service trips.  Reflections should entail more than superficial reactions and “feel-good” statements to deep analyses and critical comments.  Regular, iterative reflections throughout the service period can help students derive meaning from their experiences.  What’s more, purposeful reflections can set the stage for long-term involvement in community causes.
  3. Conduct additional research:  In this study, the outcomes of the alternative break program were not analyzed in relation to the components of the BreakAway Model.  Therefore, the relationship between the orientation or education component, for example, and students’ long-term commitment to civic engagement was not considered.  Future studies could focus on how each of the eight components contributes to developing commitment to civic engagement during a series of alternative break trips.  Additional research also could shed light on whether repeated participation in alternative break projects improves student and community outcomes.


Higher education institutions sponsor alternative breaks to give students an opportunity to render service to communities during spring and fall/winter breaks.  Benefits accrue to communities as well as the participating students.  The central finding of this study is that alternative breaks stimulate sensitivity to social issues and encourage students to become committed to community involvement.  Sponsoring follow-up trips and facilitating purposeful reflections are ways to enhance alternative breaks and promote civic commitment.  In particular, reflection is a hallmark of good practice.

Nurturing civic commitment takes time.  Clearly, a period of six to 10 days is inadequate if students are to develop a deep understanding of complex social issues and commitment to long-term civic engagement.  Nevertheless, institutional sponsorship of alternative breaks should continue because the program promotes positive attitudes to responsible citizenship.  At least, it helps college students consider taking their place among the “thoughtful, committed citizens” who “can change the world.”


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 About the Author:

Glenn A. Bowen , Ph.D., was Director of the Center for Service Learning at Western Carolina University, where he established the alternative break program in 2004. His publications include “Service-Learning in Higher Education: Giving Life and Depth to Teaching and Learning,” in Service Learning: Perspectives and Applications (Icfai University Press, 2008), and Reflection Methods and Activities for Service Learning: A Student Manual and Workbook(Kendall/Hunt, 2007).   Email:

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.