Alternative Spring Break Trips: Educational Opportunities Span Globe

Betsy Bloom

Colgate University’s motto, Deo Ac Veri-tati, translates to “For God and Truth.” While this motto might seem to harken back to our days of 13 men with 13 prayers, it had real relevance for one current student whose spring break service trip taught him the im-portance of doing good under the name of any god. First-year Jingwei Wang traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan with a group of Colgate students to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

“Habitat for Humanity is a Christian or-ganization, and we had to pray every time before we got to work,” Wang explained. “I believe in a different religion…the homeown-ers were so excited to show pictures of their new houses to me. Seeing their happy faces, I realized it is not important under which god’s name am I doing good. What matters is the fact that I am doing good,” Wang said.

Wang recalls that one of the most impor-tant things he learned on the trip was learning how to deal with diverging opinions.

“Through our discussion, I think everyone on my team learned how to and when to ac-cept the differences between people,” he said.

Through his experience in Grand Rapids, Wang also learned the power that a few can have on so many people.

“A spring break may be just another vol-unteering experience for us, but to them, our help may be a way that they could keep their family together,” Wang said.

Colgate students participated in vari-ous stages of the building process, and Wang recalls that one of the most ful-filling aspects of the trip was watching a whole house be constructed from scratch at every individual step and level.

“All the work that I have done, even the most simple and ordinary parts, is so significant to me,” Wang said.

The trip to Grand Rapids was one of a few spring break trips organized through the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism and Education (COVE) this year. Students also traveled to Pine Ridge South Dakota, a Na-tive American reservation and Path Finder Village, a community of individuals with Down’s syndrome.

The group of students who visited Pathfinder had an unforgettable and moving experience.

“Everyone, from the residents, teach-ers, staff, etc. is so willing to squeeze every bit of experience out of every op-portunity that it creates a warm, active, caring atmosphere I have never seen any-where else,” group leader junior Griffin O’Shea said.

This was O’Shea’s third year working with Pathfinder, and he has continued to learn and grow from his time there.

“Despite dealing with more inconve-niences every day than many of us do in our lifetimes, the residents I’ve met are confi-dent and proud of who they are instead of struggling with debilitating insecurity, as we often do,” O’Shea said.

During the day, Colgate students helped the staff with the necessary tasks of paint-ing, cleaning and organizing. At night, they focused on relationship building: the six students had dinner with different resi-dents each night, allowing them to build personal relationships and friendships. Af-ter dinner, everyone participated in one of Pathfinder’s recreational activities, such as volleyball, art or karaoke.

The final activity of the week was the Coffee House Project, organized by the students under the instruction of trip co-ordinator and Director of the Kennedy- Willis Center on Down’s syndrome, Helen Steponway.

Proceeds from the Shapna Project allowed the students to purchase lighting, decorations and food to create a realistic coffeehouse at-mosphere. The project was a huge success, bringing everyone together and serving as a reminder about what’s important in life.

“I performed a few piano pieces and was surprised that one resident came up to me and started to perform with me a piece out of his memory. His confidence and love of piano struck me as something I should learn from. As he received supportive ap-plauses from the audience, he graciously smiled and gestured to thank them…I real-ized that maybe we can also find content-ment and happiness from simplicity and dedication in a hectic college life,” group member first-year Chen Cui said.

Pathfinder Village is only a 45 minute drive from campus, allowing any Colgate student the opportunity to experience this amazing community.

Colgate students also had the opportunity to travel to Martinique with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies April Baptiste.

According to Baptiste, the trip gave Environmental Studies, French and ALST students a chance to “immerse themselves in the island culture and learn about its historical, linguistic and environmental components.”

The students spent the week around the area of the Universit?e des Antilles de Guyane, studying the natural environment and interacting with the culture. Professor Baptiste explained that the students had the opportunity to converse with Marti-niquais law students and listen to lectures by professors at the university. The lec-tures, which covered everything from the physical landscape to Creole language and culture, were all given in French, though, according to Baptiste, “they spoke slowly enough for us to understand, but also to allow for translation.”

Students had the opportunity to study terrestrial biomes, a topic that Baptiste has been covering in her course, Caribbean Ecol-ogy and Environmental Issues. The chance to work hand-in-hand with class topics was extremely rewarding. Sophomore Becca At-kinson, one of the students lucky enough to participate, particularly enjoyed traveling to St. Pierre, a town that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1902.

“Being able to interact with locals at the mar-ket, learn about the history of the town, as well as experience a tropical rainforest, was great because it integrated all of our interests and studies into one experience,” Atkinson said.

This year’s alternative spring breaks were clearly an overwhelming success. The students who had the fortunate opportunity to attend them have returned to Colgate with a fresh perspective and a new outlook on life.

As a Pathfinder volunteer, junior Elise Sidamon-Eristoff noted, “When I re-turned to Colgate, I felt refreshed and inspired and, although I enjoyed hear-ing funny tales from my friends’s spring breaks, I feel that the experience that I had…was incomparably eye-opening.”

Contact Betsy Bloom at

[email protected].