Spring break trips offer students alternative perspectives

by Rebecca Szkutak / Beacon Staff • March 4, 2015

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Courtesy of Suzanne Hinton
Courtesy of Suzanne Hinton

This year, some students plan to spend spring break eating dinner with migrant farmers, speaking to imprisoned immigrants, and visiting a few of the poorest zip codes in the country to gain knowledge about immigration and diversity so they can better the Emerson community.

Alternative spring break programs allow students to do a community service projects, often in collaboration with nonprofit organizations, instead of going home or on a vacation. Several campus groups organize trips for Emerson students, including the Newman Club, the organization for Catholic students, and the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning and Research.

The college-run Alternative Spring Break program, or ASB, has been offered since 2007, and is currently run through the Elma Lewis Center. ASB trips have brought students to locations like Cuidad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

This year, the center chose to focus on immigration, and students going on the trip participated in projects throughout the year to learn about the issue.

The Newman Club also runs an annual alternative spring break program that is open to all students, regardless of whether they were previously affiliated with the club. This year’s trip will take place in Sacramento, California, according to sophomore Benjamin Patterson, the Newman Club president.

In the past, the Newman Club has worked with other organizations, including the Christian Appalachian Project, a spring break program where college students repair and build homes for low-income families. 

Andrea Gordillo, a class of 2014 graduate with a degree in performing arts, attended the 2013 ASB trip to El Paso, Texas and the 2014 trip to Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Gordillo said the trips opened her eyes to issues she had not confronted before. 

“Learning about immigration was painful, but also enlightening,” said Gordillo. “[It] brought me back to memories of my childhood. A lot of the issues we were learning about there were not just at the border, but in Boston as well.” 

Ashley Tarbet Destefano, the administrative associate for the Elma Lewis Center, said that ASB organizers hope that through the program, students will learn leadership skills and be more involved in their communities.

Last year, ASB participants in South Dakota worked with the nonprofit Cheyenne River Youth Project and a Lakota Sioux reservation, where they helped run an annual event called “Passion for Fashion,” which was meant to help girls develop confidence and a personal sense of style.

“South Dakota taught me about the Native American community--it was nice to sit back and listen and to learn a lot,” Gordillo said. 

This year the ASB trip will take nine students to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, cities across the border from each other. Tarbet said she hopes that students will learn how contemporary immigration conflicts affect residents of both cities, and how they affect neighborhoods back in Boston. 

To get to know these communities better and gain a deeper understanding of the issues, the students plan to cook dinner for a group of migrant workers, visit museums about border control, and speak to people who have been imprisoned after entering the U.S. without proper documentation or authorization.

Alexandre Echeverri, a senior visual and media arts major, will be going on his first ASB trip this year. Last year, Echeverri made a documentary about undocumented immigrants who were deported from the U.S. back to Honduras, their home country. He said he has heard horror stories of how they were treated in American detention centers and wants to dive deeper into the topic.

“[I’d like to] hear more stories about people who have gone through the struggle of crossing the border, and learn [about] the relationship between the United States and countries south of the border,” Echeverri said. “I’m just looking forward to coming back with a better understanding, and better technique, as far as how to combat or aid this situation from my position in the Northeast.”

The Newman Club plans to take eight students and advisers this year to help Habitat for Humanity build houses in low-income communities; the group will stay in an unoccupied house built by Habitat for Humanity. The trip is funded by Emerson and the Archdiocese of Boston, according to Patterson.

“It‘s good to give back to the community,” Patterson said. “[It’s a] good feeling that we have done something helpful for the community as a whole.”

Gordillo said she decided she wanted to continue working at the Mexican border after hearing racist comments about Mexicans while on her ASB trip to El Paso in 2013. She said she was offended, and she realized then that she wanted to help make a change. 

She now works as a legal assistant for the Border Servant Corps, and helps victims of domestic violence and crime.

The 2015 ASB trip to El Paso raised $6,060 of their $6,000 goal through the higher education fundraising site Useed to cover some of their trip expenses.

The Elma Lewis Center also organizes projects in Boston as part of its ASB program. This year, students in Boston plan to work with community organizations across the city that help new immigrants adapt to life in Boston, including the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the Gilbert Albert Community Center, and the Chinese Progressive Association. They plan to, for example, help immigrants register to vote and hold mock job interviews.

“There’s more to [immigration] than what they might see on the news,” Tarbet said. “We want them to get the real human stories and understand better these particular people.”