Ana Villaurrutia's spring break March 10-14 away from her studies at The University of Texas-Pan American was a blast, she said, but it did not involve basking lazily in the sun, drinking too many margaritas or partying into the wee hours of the morning.
Villaurrutia was among 13 UTPA students who participated in one of two community service projects under the University's Alternative Breaks program during their annual spring break.
Later in the year, SWAP students from UTPA will travel to New Jersey to participate in a service learning project in the area of Ramapo College, located in Mahwah, N.J., 30 miles from New York City.
"We worked hard and did intense labor but what we learned on the trip was more important to us than what can fill a shot glass," said Villaurrutia, a junior from Pharr majoring in communications, who with the Ramapo College students got to also learn more about the border region and its issues and culture from speakers and interaction with local residents as well as tours of a Reynosa maquila/factory and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, for example, as part of project participation.
"We got along incredibly well," said Villaurrutia, who housed with Ramapo students in Troxel Hall during their stay in the Valley. "I think we can attribute it to the amount of compassion and dedication we had that made us see we were all in this together. We were very similar despite the different cultures."
"We went through windy, dusty days to hot, sweaty days together and of course, community service always brings out the best in people. As the week progressed and we were exposed to all sorts of situations, we found that we shared concern in a lot of issues not only as college students but also as human beings," she said.
Another group of five UTPA students and a staff member traveled to the Sam Houston Jones State Park in Louisiana where they joined 25 other students from across the United States in a spring break project to help restore wildlife habitat in the park damaged by Hurricane Rita. This Alternative Breaks program is in the planning stages to be offered during all school breaks - spring, summer and winter - with a goal of finding different projects in different locations each year.
For Amy Silva, a UTPA senior majoring in premed and dietetics, the volunteer experience in Louisiana was life changing.
"Sometimes our lives seem overwhelming with things to do that we forget about other people and our environment. This helped me to give back to the environment and the community. And in return I got an amazing experience filled with new knowledge, great accomplishment, and amazing new friends," said Silva, who housed with other students in park cabins while helping to clear the invasive plant Chinese tallow overwhelming the park's native plants and replanting 5,000 long-leaf pine trees.
Miranda Garza, a junior majoring in premed and biology, said that unlike a trip to the Island on break, the opportunity to volunteer is "priceless."
"The memories you make helping people last a lifetime," said Garza, who also worked in the state park project in Louisiana.
"We have many students who said they would like to participate again. Not only do they gain a network of peers interested in bettering their community, but they also gain the satisfaction of making a difference," said Annel Zamarrón, program coordinator in the Office of Student Life and Transition Services, who participated as a staff member in the Valley project with UTPA and Ramapo College students.
She said when SWAP participants from UTPA travel to the New Jersey/New York City area later this year, they are scheduled to volunteer in places such as Grupo Cajola, a community agency dedicated to assisting Guatemalan refugees; House on the Hill, a Head Start program; and Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, one of the largest soup kitchens in the United States.
Zamarrón said participation in either Alternative Breaks program is open to all UTPA students. Interested students must meet the following requirements - have a minimum 2.5 GPA, have no holds on their University record, and complete an application and an interview. Participating students may be charged a minimum amount ranging from $50 to $150 to help cover some of the expenses but most costs are covered through student fees Zamarrón said.
Ramirez said more students should give an Alternative Break program a try during their next official break from classes.
"I would recommend other students to just give it a chance, provided that they come in with a good attitude - a willingness to work, get dirty and be positive. This is a good chance to step out of the ordinary and see your environment and your life through a different light," Ramirez said.
For more information, contact Zamarrón at 956/318-5375 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.