Most college students take their winter break to unwind from the demands of finals, completing class projects and juggling their busy lives on campus with other responsibilities. Not Jay Pedregosa.
Pedregosa, senior psychology and biology major at The University of Texas-Pan American, hopes to be spending his break helping others less fortunate as a participant in the University's Students with a Purpose (SWAP) Winter Alternative Break Program scheduled for Jan. 9-15, 2011.
"From immediate service like helping in a food bank, to long-term service like building a house, I like to know that someone has benefited from my care," Pedregosa said. "There is no better way to be productive with your free time than by doing community service."
The SWAP Winter Alternative Break Program is in its fourth year at UTPA and unites students, near and far, through community service. In the program, two higher education institutions partner and agree to host community service events at their respective locations. Over the Winter Break this year, 10 students selected from UTPA will be joined by 10 students from Grinnell College in Iowa, who will travel nearly 1,300 miles to the Rio Grande Valley to perform community service projects at Proyecto Azteca, La Union del Pueblo Entera (LUPE), South Texas Civil Rights, and possibly other local nonprofit organizations. In May 2011, the 10 UTPA students will travel to Grinnell College and work with the same students there on projects in their region.
The goal of the program is to give students the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge and a broader look at the issues affecting communities locally and elsewhere, increase students' leadership and citizenship skills, and network with students from different universities who share the same concerns, willingness to work, and desire to take the knowledge they gain to address issues in their own communities and elsewhere, said Erica Lopez, program coordinator for the Student Life and Transition Services at UTPA.
"There is a lot of learning and development that takes place during this one-week program," Lopez said. "There are changes in students' attitudes, leadership and communication skills , and in their definition of what community service is."
Lopez said the focus of this year's project is to educate students about how issues along the border, such as immigration and the drug war, affect the Valley community.
"I want our students to really see what some of our community members are facing," she said.
Doug Cutchins, director of Social Commitment at Grinnell College, said working with UTPA on a project of such great magnitude as this one is a wonderful opportunity for his students.
"This is a great way for students to work together collaboratively and make a difference in the lives of others," said Cutchins. "It is also a chance for students to get to know each other and see different parts of the country. We look forward to working with UTPA and giving them a nice, warm Iowa welcome when they travel to us in May."
Lopez said the alternative break program should not be regarded as just glorified field trips by students but as travel experiences that provide the opportunity to learn about and help communities in both places.
"Joint community service projects are important because whether it's nationwide or worldwide, there is something that can be done," Lopez said. "The beauty of this partnership is that those students from another institution get to experience what the Rio Grande Valley and UTPA is all about, and vice-versa."
In the past, UTPA's SWAP Alternative Break Program has partnered with Tulane University in Louisiana and Ramapo College in New Jersey. Students have helped clean and rebuild areas affected by Hurricane Katrina that hit Louisiana in 2005, have painted elementary schools in Reynosa, Mexico and cleaned homeless shelters in Brownsville, Texas. They have also had the opportunity to paint apartments, work with immigrants on issues pertaining to child care, human rights and abuse, and have helped people affected by Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in Galveston, Texas in 2008. Other student service has gone toward beautifying the Rovers and Friends facility in Donna, Texas and promoting conservation energy with Green Light, an environmental organization addressing climate change and rising energy costs in New Orleans.
There is an application and interview process a student must complete before being selected to be a participant in an Alternative Break Program project. Students must be in good standing, have a 2.0 GPA and have no academic or discipline sanctions. No previous community service is necessary, but a passion for a weeklong intensive service experience is needed.
"I want this type of experience to be something students hold on to and hopefully become encouraged to engage in more service and community outreach past the UTPA campus," Lopez said.
For more information on the SWAP Alternative Break Program, contact Lopez at (956) 665-2659.