“Break away from apathy, contribute to shared humanity.”

Spring break is a time for students to take a break from their studies and recharge. For some college students, that means a trip to the beach or a week on the ski slopes. But for many SU students, spring break is an opportunity to engage in community service and gain firsthand experience with important social justice issues.

Spring Breakaway Last month, three different groups of students participated in SU’s Spring Breakaway program, which focuses on community engagement, diversity, education, social justice, and spirituality. It’s designed to get students off campus and participating in direct service while focusing on complex social justice issues. Students have the opportunity to go into communities and work side-by-side with local programs and residents in their environments.

One of SU’s groups went to Oakland, Cali., to focus on food justice. Another headed to Houston to learn about refugee resettlement in the wake of disaster, and the third went to New Orleans to focus on sustainability and long-term disaster recovery.

Nikki Welch, Coordinator of Community-Engaged Learning and advisor for Spring Breakaway, describes the program as a “life-changing learning opportunity with the ultimate goal for students to engage and develop into active citizens. Components of a quality alternative break include strong direct service, full engagement, diversity and social justice, orientation, education, training, reflection and reorientation.” Southwestern’s program encompasses all of these components, and strives to provide students a solid experience that lays the foundation for a lifetime of active citizenship where they prioritize the community in their values and life choices.


Spring Breakaway students prepare for an entire year leading up to the event. Each group has a student site leader who oversees its program, securing the community partners and coordinating the logistics and details. The site leaders also provide training on both hard and soft skills. For example, one group participated in several local Habitat for Humanity building events in order to practice the skills needed to work on houses in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.

Preparing and training beforehand also allows the students to get to know each other and build relationships prior to leaving, which can enhance the team experience.

Southwestern Spring Breakaway Experiences 2018

The students that participate in Spring Breakaway are extremely dedicated and hard workers. They have a passion for social justice issues and work tirelessly to not only help the communities they visit, but also to develop the compassion and skills to create change and better their own communities back home.

Spring Breakaway Student Director Veronica Espinosa says, “When you see these complex social justice issues in real life, you see how it connects to the community. It’s much different than reading about it in a book or hearing a lecture in class.”

Overview of the SU Spring Breakaway 2018 Experiences

Spring Breakaway Spring Breakaway Group #1: Oakland, CA
Topic of Focus: Food Justice
Community Partners: Alameda County Community Food Bank, Food Shift
Student Site Leader: Maureen Rendon ’21
Staff Learning Partner: Amanda Anthony, Assistant Director of Financial Aid

Eleven SU students went to California during spring break to focus on food justice issues in the Oakland area. They spent hours helping at the food bank, getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how an organization of its size works to serve its community. They also had the opportunity to attend a lecture at University of California, Berkeley and meet with some of their alternative break student leaders.

As one Oakland participant reflected, “Food insecurity comes from a multitude of social issues. After this experience, I realized how complex it really is, but to try not to get overwhelmed and focus on the small things that we can do.”

Rendon agreed, reminding the group that they can take what they learned and apply it to help our own community back home.

Spring Breakaway

Spring Breakaway Group #2: Houston, TX
Topic of Focus: Refugee Resettlement in the Wake of Disaster
Community Partners: SEWA International, IEDA Relief, The Community Cloth, Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, Plant it Forward Farms, Freewheels
Site Leader: Amiel Padayhag ’20
Staff Learning Partners: Paul Secord, Vice President for University Relations, and Laurie Avery ’14

A second group of SU students headed to Houston to focus on refugee resettlement in the wake of disaster. There were several different community partners, and students had the opportunity to interact directly with refugees of all ages, including children. Language was a barrier, but some bilingual students had the opportunity to teach English to refugees. Others participated in Freewheels, which provides bicycles free of charge to refugees to provide a means of transportation and help them develop a sense of independence.

One SU participant said of the experience, “Being able to connect with people of different backgrounds allowed me to relate everything from the classroom to my personal experiences to life-changing stories of others.”

Another student agreed, realizing that “change will come over time when we work together in a collaborative environment.”


Spring Breakaway Spring Breakaway Group #3: New Orleans, LA
Topic of Focus: Paving Way to Sustainability: Long-Term Disaster Recovery
Community Partners: Green Light New Orleans, NOLA Tree Project, Lowernine.org
Site Leader: Lauren Muskara ’19
Staff Learning Partners: Kelly Lessard, Administrative Assistant to the Faculty, and Nikki Welch, Coordinator of Community-Engaged Learning

Students on the New Orleans Spring Breakaway experience had the opportunity to work and talk with residents of the Lower 9th Ward, who are still struggling to rebuild 13 years after Hurricane Katrina. The activities included hands-on work such as installing drywall and painting, as well as planting trees by a local Senior Center. One shotgun style house they worked on is owned by two artists that are turning it into an art center the entire community can enjoy.

One student reflected, “I realized just how interconnected the issues of environmental racism and disaster recovery are, especially in New Orleans. Hearing stories and gaining insights from community partners led to a personal awareness for me.” Another said, “I enjoyed interacting with people in the community. Their kindness, gratitude and resilience reminded me why being an active citizen is so important.”

Spring Breakaway

Spring Breakaway 2019

Sarah Brackmann, Director of Community-Engaged Learning, reminds students that it’s not too early to begin planning for Spring Breakaway 2019. She encourages students to submit site proposals for next year, and to continue to build on established partnerships. For more information visit the Spring Breakaway website or contact Nikki Welch through email (welchn@southwestern.edu) or phone at 512.863.1215.

“If you’re thinking of doing Spring Breakaway… don’t think, just do it! You won’t regret it because there are just so many things you can learn outside of the classroom.” - 2018 New Orleans Spring Breakaway Participant

Spring Breakaway Group #2’s experience was made possible by a generous grant from the Moody Foundation.