A spring break like no other

Students participating in the University of Miami Alternative Breaks Program pose by a truck near the Urban Growers Collective in Chicago, Illinois. More than 40 UM students took part in the program during spring break.

By Ashley A. Williams

Students participating in the University of Miami Alternative Breaks Program pose by a truck near the Urban Growers Collective in Chicago, Illinois. More than 40 UM students took part in the program during spring break.

A spring break like no other

By Ashley A. Williams
More than 40 University of Miami students spent last week in a half dozen U.S. communities learning about social issues and helping others as part of the Alternative Breaks program.

Ethan Cheng said the work he does is incredibly rewarding.

As co-chair of the Alternative Breaks Program at the University of Miami, he connects students with spring break trips that, to some, are life changing.

“Having been on Alternative Breaks before as a site leader, I know how impactful these trips can be, so being part of the team that allows other students to have a similar experience is amazing,” said Cheng, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry.

The Alternative Breaks Program (UMAB) is a student-run undergraduate program sponsored by the Butler Center for Service and Leadership. This spring break 44 students traveled to six cities to participate in programs focused on social issues that included: children and adults with disabilities; homelessness and food insecurity; domestic violence; disaster relief; immigration; and urban agriculture and youth empowerment.

Students apply for the program and choose a topic that most interests them. Several students shared insights from their experience last week. 

International Rescue Committee, Abilene, Texas. (Social issue: immigration)

My name is Sofia Mohammad, and I’m the site leader for this trip. Originally from Pembroke Pines, Florida, I’m a sophomore majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with minors in Public Health and Chemistry. I am a passionate social justice advocate, and I feel strongly about issues pertaining to displaced populations, particularly with mental health issues that impact children who are from displaced and oppressed demographics, as well as issues pertaining to gender equality in different aspects of our society.

Our UMAB trip was working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC was the first of its kind in a small town, as opposed to a refugee resource center in a big city such as New York or Boston.

Based on my interest in issues pertaining to children who are displaced due to conflict in their home countries, I felt it was only fitting to apply to be a part of the spring break trip with the IRC. The organization is devoted to the following goals: to provide opportunities for refugees, asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, survivors of torture, and other immigrants, an opportunity to thrive in America.

Each year, thousands of people, forced to flee violence and persecution, are welcomed by the people of the United States into the safety and freedom of America. These individuals have survived against incredible odds. The IRC works with government bodies, civil society actors, and local volunteers to help them translate their past experiences into assets that are valuable to their new communities. Theirmission truly inspired me, especially in light of our recent political climate in which immigrants and refugees are misrepresented and denied the opportunity to rebuild their lives and families in another country while their former home is ravaged by conflict.

For the past six years, the IRC in Abilene has been receiving an influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, and people from places as widespread as Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya were present at that center.

Based on their own experiences living in a low resource environment with limited access to the formal healthcare system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they explained the importance of sustainable interventions such as long term impact and infrastructure sustainability rather than just treating current cases and temporarily remedying an issue. It was really eye opening for me to learn about this from middle school age children. I now have a better understanding of working to achieve sustainable change as opposed to short-term progress on an issue that is extremely complex in nature.

In terms of my personal goals, I was changed by the kids and volunteers I met on the trip and I hope to devote time towards maintaining the relationship I developed with them by working with the IRC office from Miami. I hope to help with mentoring some high school students in regards to biology and math tutoring to help them navigate the American education system.

I would recommend UMAB to anyone who is passionate about giving back to communities in need and about using their position of privilege in our society to help improve the circumstances of people who have come to face adversity in terms of social, political, and economic contexts. 

Youth Service Opportunities Project, Washington, D.C. (Social issue: homelessness and food insecurity)


I’m Nathaniel Furman and I’m from Louisville, Kentucky. Really Prospect, Ky., but no one knows where that is. I’m majoring in electrical and physics for a number of reasons. I’ve heard great things about the program and have finally had an opportunity to participate. From the IMPACT leadership retreat over fall break to pep band trips over spring break, my breaks have been filled before.

A combination of others’ stories and experiences along with personal growth and interest helped me decide. Homelessness and food insecurity makes the rest of life near impossible. How can someone focus on an education when they don’t know when they’ll eat next?

There are many facets of this organization, but our focus is more on homelessness and food insecurity. We will be helping the D.C. community as YSOP assigns us. A personal aspiration is to gain experience and knowledge that will help my personal growth in a variety of ways. This involves growth in knowledge of the issues affecting others and the struggles they are going through daily. This will help me better empathize with others in more daily interactions. Additionally, growth in the interpersonal relationships of others on this trip. This is an opportunity to really get to know my peers beyond the surface superficial level and understand who they are as a person.

I hope the connections I make here will last and develop into a significant part of my life. Already, one fellow participant will be a First Year Fellow with me next year so I’m grateful to be able to build a foundation now. As for many of the other participants, I believe they share some of the same goals and want to make a difference in both the Miami and D.C. communities.


My expectations have definitely changed a little. I realized the organization, YSOP, is not focused as much on young people in need, but helps youth serve in various communities. They work with many groups that serve a wide range of people.

The hours we were serving varied daily. Some days it was much longer than others, and this did not include the travel time to some of the farther sites. The first day was particularly early, but after that most days started at 8:00 a.m. At night, we had a reflection at YSOP, explored the city a bit, and then travelled back to the hotel for dinner. After making food, playing cards, and our reflection, the nights usually ended around 11:00 p.m. or midnight.

This experience was great. Both exploring D.C. with people I have only recently met and doing service for the D.C. community have further shaped me as an individual. Personally, I gained connections and experiences to help make connections in the future.

I also have gained more insight into myself. I better understand my natural reactions in various situations and have a better idea of the space I take up in my roles. In tandem with personal gains, I have gained professionally from this experience. I have connected with a speaker at UMass Boston along with another electrical engineer who is changing his career focus to more social work in higher education. I also connected with a senior from Ithaca College in New York. She’s doing much of the same work I am at her university and is trying to make the world a better place. I plan to keep that connection professionally as well.

Not only did I gain experience, I gained knowledge. Based on the interactions throughout this past week, I am now more confident in my ability to learn from most anyone. I spoke with old black men without a home, kids not older than 10 whose parents are struggling at home, and close in age peers who have incredibly unique life stories. I learned about the problems D.C. is experiencing in housing and how that directly applies to Miami. As people move in to the city, prices that haven’t moved for years are increasing, causing many to move. This is very applicable to Wynwood in Miami and similar areas.

On top of all this, I learned more about the daily/weekly/monthly/life struggles of those experiencing homelessness. Anyone can find themselves in their situation someday. Everyone has their story and it is so important to treat people as humans first rather than making assumptions. This is key in all interactions, especially in Miami and in daily life. 

Children’s Association for Maximum Potential (CAMP), San Antonio, Texas. (Social issue: children and adults with disabilities)

I’m Carson Pinker, a sophomore majoring in exercise physiology. The Alternative Breaks Program has interested me ever since I started school at UM. I have always had the passion to help others, and this seemed like a great opportunity to do my part around the community. I didn’t know that it would have such a profound impact on my life.

This year, I chose to go to San Antonio, Texas and volunteer as a camp counselor for a camp that serves individuals with special needs. My time at camp as a child helped grow me into the person that I am today. The experiences that I had and the friends that I made shaped my life in such impactful ways, but many people don’t have those opportunities. Camp CAMP, or Children’s Association for Maximum Potential, was founded to give people of all ages the traditional camp experience. Campers have a wide variety of disabilities, but Camp CAMP doesn’t turn away anybody, despite the severity of their disability.

They are paired up one camper to one counselor to ensure that everyone is getting the special attention that they require. Some campers need assistance with things such as showering, using the restroom, eating, and so much more, but everything is done to make sure they have the best possible time and make the most incredible memories.

We worked with a large group of volunteers, both returners and first timers, who were so passionate about the work that they do. Despite the physically and emotionally draining days, everyone came out a different person at the end of it. Personally, I started to see the world in a different way. Rarely are we reminded about how much of a gift it is to be able to walk, eat on your own, communicate your desires, or simply go to the bathroom without help, but each of these campers were so brave and open to the new experiences and help that they were receiving. The only thing that mattered to them for that week was to have fun and make memories, and I think we can all learn a lot from their joy.

Choosing to be a part of this program is one of the best decisions that I have made in my entire life. My outlook on the world has shifted, my gratitude has become more pronounced, and my life goals have gotten bigger. I can see Camp CAMP being a part of who I am for the rest of my life, and I would never have gotten this experience without UMAB. This is an opportunity that I highly recommend to anyone who has even an inkling of interest in alternative breaks. You never know what event can shape your life like camp did for me.