Western University student Nicole Gibillini will most likely get a tan this spring break—a farmer’s tan, that is.
She won’t be lying on a beach or sipping fruity drinks. Instead, she’ll spend 24 hours travelling by bus, followed by four days of manual labour in the hot Louisiana sun. And she’s not being paid—in fact, she’s paying for the chance to do it.
“It is a big sacrifice to do it,” Gibillini said. “But it’s a good opportunity. I’ve gone away for reading week before and I just wanted to do something different.”
Gibillini, a fourth-year political science student, is one of dozens of students who are participating in the Alternative Spring Break program at Western this year. The program sends groups of students, faculty and staff each year on volunteer excursions across the globe during their time off in February. Trips this year include teaching orphans in the Dominican Republic, offering medical aid in Panama, and building houses in New Orleans—where Gibillini is headed.
The trips ask a lot of the participants. They cost a hefty fee (the New Orleans trip is around $900, but others go as high as $2,500) and require a commitment to doing physical work throughout their reading week. Students wishing to take part in the experience have to pass a rigorous screening test to make sure they’ve got what it takes, said Gibillini.
Kim Solga, an English professor at Western, was a team leader on an ASB trip to Peru three years ago. She said she and the two other team leaders spent a full day selecting the students for their trip, noting it takes a special kind of person to go on these excursions.
“It takes a student who is willing to—and who has the emotional and mental capacity to—take a real risk and step outside their comfort zone,” she said.
“Every student who goes on ASB needs to understand we might be doing service work but we’re doing it in exchange for an experience that is probably of equal value, if not more.”
Along with all the physical stress of living without creature comforts in a land far from home for a week, and the difficult manual labour using limited supplies, the trips can be emotionally humbling and genuinely eye opening for students with a more privileged background, Solga said.
That was true for Brenna Staats, who also went to Peru with ASB last year.
“One of the lasting impressions I still think of now is getting to see how people in an entirely different culture live.”
Staats said she was nervous going into the trip, but by the time she came back it was at the top of the list of her most memorable and life-changing experiences of university.
Just a week away from her departure, Gibillini is nervous, but excited.
“Right now, I’m just trying to get all my schoolwork done because I have three assignments due the week I get back,” she said.
“I think going somewhere else and actually experiencing what I’ve been learning about is going to open my eyes and really make my educational experience more worth-while than just sitting in a classroom.”