From the shores of Puerto Rico to the crowded subway platforms of New York City, the McKeen Center for the Common Good sent students across the United States to volunteer and learn about social issues throughout the country over spring break.
The student-led trips, which originally began in 2002, returned this year after a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic and sought to provide students the ability to explore communities with which they may not be familiar.
“The Alternative Spring Break program is an opportunity for students to explore a community that may be new to them and some sort of social or community issue that they’re interested in learning more about,” Sarah Seames, director of the McKeen Center, said. “It’s a peer-to-peer learning experience.”
The Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip service projects ranged from working with immigrant groups at the U.S. Border to agricultural volunteering in Puerto Rico. While on the trips, students were able to connect with community partners and learn about issues in an impactful way through public service.
Jillian Horton ’24 worked in Puerto Rico with an organization called “Peace for Women,” engaging with women survivors of domestic violence or sexual abuse and helping them find new opportunities to make their own income.
“Seeing that direct impact [the group made] and also hearing some of the stories of the women who were involved with it and how they became involved with the organization was really rewarding,” Horton said.
Unlike other programs run through the McKeen Center, student leaders take on almost all the responsibility of planning ASB trips. Each fall, students can apply to lead an ASB trip, and, if approved, trip leaders are responsible for reaching out to community partner organizations, determining the trip’s schedule and securing housing for their cohort. Trip leaders believe this student-oriented approach allows students to explore topics that are important to them and connect to their peers in a non-traditional way.
“I really wanted to take advantage of the resources and opportunity the McKeen Center ASB trips provide to [educate] other students to learn about this and actually get to see it in-person,” trip leader Dani Quezada ’22 wrote in an email to the Orient. “Being so far removed physically from the situation, we can become desensitized to serious and huge issues like [U.S. immigration policy] … and I kind of want to remind people that what we learn in the classroom or see and hear of while at Bowdoin shouldn’t just be forgotten or brushed off.”
In addition to the ASB trips, a cohort of sophomores participated in the Bowdoin Public Service program (BPS) in Washington. The program, which is also run by the McKeen Center, gives students the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. to learn about what a career in politics and policymaking could entail.
“The program has an emphasis on exploration and trying to offer a lot of different options for students with different academic interests,” Sam Cogswell ’11, interim director of the McKeen Center, said.
Students met with and listened to a number of alumni in a variety of career fields, including former Secretary of Defense William Cohen ’62 H’ 74 and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Tom Pickering ’53. The speakers for each trip are selected based on the interests of the students in order for the cohort to get a more rewarding experience.
“Whether you’re working in the legislature, or you’re working at the local level …there [are] so many different ways that you can apply your interests into government work,” Cogswell said. “We try to tailor who we bring in based [on the] cohort, so it will be relevant to students.”
Cogswell also believes that this year’s program allowed for current sophomores, who have suffered from a disjointed experience at the College, to connect with other members of their class. The effort to help students didn’t go unnoticed by the program’s participants.
“You’re just stuck in the same spot with the same people and you kind of have to get along or it’s just not gonna be enjoyable, which I think is a rare [occurrence] at Bowdoin,” Nina Badger ’22, a student leader of the BPS cohort, said. “Everyone’s interested in public service, which is really cool, especially if it’s such a cool group of people to hear different perspectives like firsthand experiences.
“It was an opportunity to not only meet Bowdoin alumni in the field of public service, but to also get to know a group of people that you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise,” Aidan Reid ’24, a participant in the program, said.
Likewise, students on the ASB trip were also able to forge unique bonds with each other through both their work and the experiences they had outside of volunteering.
“I came to Philly with the goal of opening my eyes to communities I had not been a part of. I think that the city gave me those perspectives just as much as my trip members,” David Ma ’24, a participant in the ASB Philadelphia trip, said. “From our little excursions to procure Philly’s signature foods to Love Island shenanigans, a big part of my takeaway has to be the time spent with members of my cohort.”