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Huskie Alternative Breaks provide learning outside the classroom

April 6, 2020

Before the coronavirus changed university life as we know it, NIU freshman Maddie Dossett received a lesson in environmental justice and teamwork when she traveled to Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky. Dossett, who is majoring in environmental studies, was one of 50 NIU students and five faculty members who took part in the Huskie Alternative Breaks program held March 8-14.

Land Between the Lakes – Environmental Justice (Golden Pond, KY) 

“This was an opportunity to experience something that we would never have the chance to do in our everyday lives,” said Dossett.

The Huskie Alternative Breaks (HAB) program is centered on creating transformative, community engagement experiences for students. This unique service-learning program, which aligns with the university’s spring break, provides students and faculty the opportunity to evaluate current social issues and seek ways to continually change the world.

“Experiences like the Huskie Alternative Breaks allow students to get out of their comfort zone and truly apply ideas they have been learning in the classroom to real life situations,” said Taylor Donelson, graduate assistant in the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning. “It provides a unique opportunity to travel, learn new skills and ideas, and a chance to make an impact on other communities around the United States.”

Donelson said students gain tangible skills for their future careers, and more.

“Students hope to gain a new perspective on service-learning, lasting relationships with like-minded NIU students, marketable leadership and teamwork skills, and a meaningful spring break week,” Donelson said. “I think they often come back with much more than they even imagined.”

Civil Rights Group (Selma, AL)

Joseph Flynn, associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction and associate director for Academic Affairs for the Center for Black Studies at NIU, chaperoned a group of 10 students during a memorable civil rights trip to Selma, Alabama.

“Students gained new knowledge about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and could further connect with the experience by actually being in those places,” Flynn said. “Things like seeing how small Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge is — the bridge crossed on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 — is much more visceral than seeing it in books or movies.”

Flynn said besides lessons in history, alternative spring breaks provide additional benefits.

“I hope they were able to get a little outside their comfort zones because that’s how we all grow,” Flynn said. “I strongly recommend more students look into alternative spring break trips and study abroad trips as well. They are great experiences where you have the chance to see more of the world and experience new people.”

Dossett shared the sentiment.

“Everyone should at least try to go on a Huskie Alternative Break trip because you might not think that it will benefit you in any way, but it is the complete opposite,” Dossett said. “No matter your major, where you come from or even your interests, it will benefit you in so many ways.”

2021 Huskie Alternative Breaks

Site leader applications for 2021 are  now open.

Participant applications will be open in August. Go to Huskie Alternative Breaks to learn more or follow them on Facebook @HuskieAlternativeBreaks to stay up to date with application deadlines. Contact [email protected] with any questions.

Dossett’s trip to western Kentucky combined her passion for the environment with service and exploration. Along with eight other students, Dossett helped with a broad range of projects at the national recreation area, from tree planting, restoration and environmental education, to farm work, shoreline cleanups and heritage/archeology projects.

In addition, Dossett said, it was an opportunity to build important relationships with fellow Huskies.

“It’s hard to imagine spending the whole week volunteering with a group of people that you barely know, but it was honestly the best experience I have ever had,” Dossett said. “I have built relationships that I will have for the rest of my life.”

NIU sophomore Dioco Reyes was a site leader for a trip to Michigan where nine students worked for Habitat for Humanity of Kent County.

“HAB is an amazing opportunity for participants to travel and learn about another community outside of [NIU] and DeKalb,” Reyes said. “It provides an engaging firsthand experience and creates impactful memories for participants to cherish.”

In turn, Reyes said, alternative breaks give students an opportunity to become active citizens.

“Opportunities like this help develop one’s character and ethics,” Reyes said. “Participants learn more about various social issues that other communities are facing; they can apply this knowledge to NIU or DeKalb.”

To learn more about this year’s adventures, go to 2020 Huskie Alternative Breaks.

Here’s where Huskies made a difference during the 2020 Huskie Alternative Breaks:

Immigration Advocacy: Changing the Narrative – South Bend, Indiana

La Casa – Immigration Advocacy Group (South Bend, IN)

This alternative break will allow you work with a not-for-profit organization, La Casa de Amistad, which serves youth and immigrant Latino/Hispanic communities by providing educational, cultural and advocacy services in a welcoming environment. The HAB participants will work with youth programs, or help adults practice for the naturalization interview (citizenship exam), or help the organization with projects in their home repair or neighborhood cleanup. Through this service, the organization can help teach and reflect on the issues that affect their immigrant community.
Co-hosted by NIU’s Center for Latin and Latino American Studies.

Environmental Justice: Past, Present and Future – Golden Pond, Kentucky
This experience is a great opportunity to combine your passion for hiking, the outdoors and the environment through service and exploration of Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky. The HAB participants will help with a broad range of projects, from tree planting, restoration, environmental education, to farm work, shoreline cleanups and heritage/ archeology projects. You’ll also appreciate spending time at the 1850s living history farm, Woodlands Nature Station, and elk and bison viewing area.
Co-hosted by NIU’s Outdoor Adventures.

Civic Engagement: Why Does it Matter? – Memphis, Tennessee

Serve901- Civic Engagement Group (Memphis, TN)

Make a lasting impact through this service-learning experience and learn how Memphis cares about people and place. Spend your spring break with Serve901, an organization that connects college students with organizations to facilitate interpersonal development and a renewed perspective of civic advocacy, interdependence and respect for diversity. Serve901 believes that Memphis changes people, teaching them to care more about the world around them. Go and see! Students assist with projects related to hospitality, school-based small learning groups, urban farming and after-school programs in addition to visiting the national Civil Rights Museum.
Co-hosted by NIU’s Center for Nonprofit and NGO Studies.

Community Development: Helping to Build a Stronger Future – Grand Rapids, Michigan
Habitat for Humanity of Kent County brings people together to build homes, communities and hope. Their vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. This trip will involve much more than just construction of a building – it will execute a neighborhood-focused plan to expand affordable housing, health, education and economic opportunities for the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood. Students will be building a bilingual pharmacy for the community, in addition to other projects, such as painting and interior carpentry, building walls and floor systems in the panel shop.
Co-hosted by NIU’s University Honors Program.

Civil Rights: In the Land of the Heroes – Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham
Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project is partnered with the Blackbelt and Central Alabama Housing to provide exceptional opportunities for service-learning experiences. They strive to initiate experiences that foster a cultural exchange as well as a deeper understanding of social issues. Through these experiences, students are motivated to become active, engaged citizens in their communities. During their time in Selma, participants will work with very low-income residents who otherwise could not afford the costs to make improvements on their home. The community host site leader marched with Dr. Martin Luther King when he was a student and can provide inspirational insights of the civil rights movement to student volunteers.
Co-hosted by NIU’s Center for Black Studies.