- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring break — it’s not just for partying anymore.

College students across the country have long anticipated the annual hedonistic ritual known as spring break, which initially was designed as a time for students to get a break from studies and campus life. Many students simply would return to hearth and home, but times have changed. While thousands upon thousands descend upon touristy beach cities, more and more students are considering their civic and humantarian responsibilities and taking alternative spring breaks.

For at least a decade prior to the breakout 1960 film “Where the Boys Are,” college youths have been breaking for warm climes along the Gulf Coast. Cancun, Mexico, and beaches in Texas have long been popular. And Florida’s Panama City Beach and Fort Lauderdale, the location of the movie, remain hugely popular for college students who want to test — and push — the limits on sun and fun, and sex and booze.

What can and does go wrong during spring break (Web video often captures women behaving very badly) have become the norm for coming-of-age crowds. But mtvU, the cable-network’s offshoot, won’t be in Panana City Beach this year; instead its Web site implores youths to hit Acapulco, where it will get the party started. “Get ready cause were coming with all the action you can handle,” the Web site says.

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But some students say enough with the partying, telling their school newspapers and other outlets that they would prefer to do something worthwhile.

Students at Wayne State University in Detroit have been participating in an alternative program for years, and they usually go to other locales. This year, they are staying put and solving problems faced by their own city.

During a weeklong program (March 14-19), students will immerse themselves in the city by staying at an Episcopal church, holding workshops to fight crime, hunger and homelessness, and participating in community-service projects.

Senior psychology student Fatima Younus, who last year helped clean up abandoned homes, says the alternative spring break program, which the school started in 2002, helps students get to know each other, the organizations in Detroit and the city itself.

“We approach the problems of Detroit in a very positive and constructive manner,” Ms. Younus told the South End, Wayne State’s student paper. She called the program “a great learning opportunity.”

Virginia Tech in Blacksburg has strong YMCA ties and a long history of its students giving back over fall, winter and spring breaks.

“While some students are planning beach vacations or even a full week of home-cooked meals from mom, 20 Hokies are preparing for hurricane reconstruction and a hike up the Appalachian Trail,” Virginia Tech’s collegiatetimes.com reported recently.

Some Hokies will participate in a reconstruction program in Galveston, Texas, which is still recovering from 2008’s Hurricane Ike. Some others will hit the Appalachian Trail to hike and partner with women’s shelters along the way. It’s all to pay homage to Rebecca Wight, a gay alumna who was slain on the trail.

The armed services are in spring break mode, too. The Army, which is parterning with spring break organizers, will hold interactive and alcohol-free events and challenges, including a rock-climbing tower and obstacle course at South Padre Island, Texas, and Panama City Beach, Fla. (See goarmy.com for details.)

“Participants also have the chance to talk to Army representatives about what gives a U.S. Army soldier a strength like no other and discuss the career, educational and leadership opportunities available to them in the U.S. Army,” the Web site says.

While some school spring breaks begin as early as the end of February, scores of others start the week of March 14. But whenever the schedule, supporters agree that organized service-oriented alternatives are meaningful, life-changing events.

“These opportunities will change your life,” said Virginia Tech’s Ayla Wilk, a junior chemistry and biochemistry major. “It sounds really cliche, but when a trip is done right and the work is meaningful, and not necessarily meaningful to you but meaningful to the organization, you really come to respect how much of a role you can play in a short period of time.”

Some college students will be following the Gospel during spring break with the Campus Crusade for Christ organization in Panama City Beach, where they hope to pull together 1 million meals to ship to Haiti in conjunction with the Global AIDS Network and Kids Against Hunger.

The students also hope to share their faith with the tens of thousands of other students who descend upon the beach and have them lend a helping hand.

For others, an alternative spring break means thinking about employment prospects.

Christine Murtha of South Dakota State University says that’s why she is headed for the Cheyenne River Reservation. The reservation was recently struck by a blizzard and ice storm, and many of its small 13 communities lack water and sewer systems.

A junior whose studies focus on Spanish education and American Indians, Miss Murtha told the student newspaper, the Collegian, “In the future, I want to work on the reservation and be a teacher and create after-school programs, and this is a good way to get firsthand experience of the needs on reservations.”