AWOL trips provide educational opportunities during winter break
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AWOL trips provide educational opportunities during winter break

While many students spent their winter break binging  their favorite Netflix show or catching up on sleep, other USD students spent their winter breaks much differently.

AWOL, or Alternative Weekend of Learning, is a campus organization led by students that focuses on alternative breaks. AWOL uses the term alternative breaks because their trips are a focused educational experience.

Kim Albracht, the assistant director of academic engagement, said the goal of alternative breaks is to help students become more educated about the social issues affecting communities.

“By working with organizations and communities, we get to know individuals for whom those issues are a daily reality,” Albracht said.

The process to plan alternative breaks begins at the end of the spring semester before each academic year. A student board of seven elected leaders and two Center for Academic and Global Engagement (CAGE) staff advisors meet to plan where and when the alternative breaks will be.

“We select how many alternative breaks will be offered during the coming year, the social issues that we want to focus on, potential new or re-occurring community organizations we would like to partner with, and the geographical locations,” Albracht said.

AWOL selects student site leaders to lead each alternative break.

Claire Hoogland is a junior nursing major and is the Vice President of Site Leader Training. She also served as a site leader for a winter alternative break.

Hoogland’s job is to lead training sessions for the other site leaders.

“We go over what AWOL is, what it’s about and what is expected from them and their participants,” Hoogland said.

Hoogland said the main goal of their trips is to promote active citizenship, so they have a no-cell-phone policy at their service sites.

“One thing we really focus on is being fully engaged in what we are doing and why we are doing it,” Hoogland said. “ You go into a different community and you see something you learn and you bring it back to your own community.”

Hoogland led a trip to Houston, Texas centered around health focus.

Participants helped the Houston Health Foundation Gardens make soil, lay down new ground and plant vegetables. Hoogland said she worked with many health organizations she didn’t know existed before her trip.

“We worked with Project Cure, which is the only place in the world that takes old unused medical supplies and send it to developing countries,” Hoogland said. “We sorted through and packed the supplies that will go to nine different clinics in Nigeria.”

During their trip, participants lived on $6 a day to simulate what it would be like to live below the poverty line.

“It forces you to have an open mind and pushes you out of your comfort zone. It really opens your eyes to how lucky we are,” she said.

Leah Naasz, a sophomore medical biology major, went on an alternative break to Puerto Rico over winter break.

The focus of the alternative break was sustainability and agriculture. Naasz said it was difficult adjusting to the different lifestyle.

“We slept on a yoga mat in a tent in the middle of the rainforest,” she said. “We were in the fields all day long trying to break up the hard soil.”

Naasz said she came back with a different outlook on life and greatly appreciated the way the people treated them.

“They believe you need to take care of yourself so that you can serve others,” Naasz said.

AWOL focuses on service learning to encourage being engaged citizens in our own communities.

“Through service-learning, we reflect on our shared service experiences, develop a deeper understanding about the social issues and learn how to use that knowledge to push our own development as engaged and active global citizens,” Albracht said. the social issues and learn how to use that knowledge to push our own development as engaged and active global citizens,” Albracht said.