An alternative spring break

College breaks in summer and spring have the potential for meaningful service experiences.

Erin Lengas

The term “spring break” has a bad rap with almost everyone except college students. To most, spring break means heading south and wearing next to nothing while doing keg stands on the beach, but this week-long vacation doesn’t have to be so two-dimensional. In fact, it’s not. For me and 38 other amazing students, this spring break meant serving communities, traveling across the country and forming long-lasting friendships.

Every year since 2004, the group Students Today Leaders Forever has sent multiple buses to different destinations across the country on Pay it Forward Tours. For this year’s spring break, I took part in a mystery tour. Each member of the tour climbed on the bus the first day not knowing any other member. Our bus traveled for five days before reaching its destination, Denver.

Each of these five days brought a different service project in a new city, which was organized by one of the five leaders of the tour. Because it was a mystery tour, only leaders knew which city the group would stop at next or what the service project would be.

Each morning, we learned about the service project and carried it out for approximately three hours. Projects ranged from picking up trash, gardening, volunteering at a center for people with mental disabilities and organizing books at Goodwill.

After completing our service project, we ate lunch and hopped back on the bus to travel to our next destination. Our group spent nights in churches and community centers. Each night we took part in different reflective activities.

As rewarding as it was to serve others, hear community members voice their gratitude for our work and see a visible difference in the communities we visited, I will never forget the feeling of genuine love and the unbreakable bonds formed among the members of the tour.

For one nighttime activity, we each shared our biggest struggle. Moments of trust like these solidified our almost unnaturally close bond. Witnessing the openness of virtual strangers touched each of us deeply and drew us closer.

There’s no shame in spending spring break sipping margaritas in the sun or catching up on sleep at mom and dad’s. Everyone needs time to relax and unwind, but it’s not too late to get involved, serve others and make a change.

Think about this summer. Maybe you’ll be working, taking classes, or maybe you don’t have any plans. Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter or Habitat for Humanity.  Even small acts like picking up trash in your neighborhood can make a difference and spark others to pay it forward.

Think about your plans for next spring break. This trip taught me things about others and myself that I needed to learn. I realized that simply because someone is different from me, doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing.

Everyone has quirks, everyone has struggles and everyone has truly special qualities. I am so thankful to have experienced this first hand, and I hope to never miss out on a unique and fantastic friend because of judgments or preconceived notions.

I learned to be a more accepting, more honest and a more real person. Those I encounter deserve nothing less. I learned how gratifying it is to help others and that a group of 40 people can make a difference.

Lastly, I learned that making true connections with people takes courage, and keeping those connections requires effort. But when a group of people comes together and share so much, enduring friendships are essentially effortless.