In order to highlight the Global Health work done through student organizations on campus, we would like to share the experiences of students who have worked with some of these on campus organizations. There are many opportunities available for students to get involved with global health around the world, abroad and locally. For our first spotlight on one of the Friends of Global Health we had the privilege of sitting down and talking to some representatives from the Alternative Breaks program at UC San Diego about how their lives changed during their service trips.

What is Alternative Breaks?

Alternative Breaks is a daughter organization of a bigger non-profit called Breakaway. It is entirely student run, with most trips using a post-grad advisor. They offer a variety of International and National trips over spring break that use education of social justice issues combined with strong direct service to have a lasting impact on students and the communities they work alongside. They also offer weekend trips once a quarter to get students involved in an important social justice issue that affects the San Diego community.

What is the Alternative Breaks Process?

Alternative Breaks runs multiple spring break trips and some summer trips, as well as weekend trips quarterly. The main service trips are the spring break ones, and planning begins early. Unfortunately the application period for this year is closed, but there are still many weekend opportunities. For the summer trips, there are a total of 12 participants, 2 site coordinators, a community advisor, and 9 current undergrads or alumni. The process is truly year long, as it begins with fundraising and education programs, and continues after the spring break trip ends with reorientation programs about how you can continue to grow and make a difference in our local community within the issue that was discussed. But beyond the logistics, Alternative Breaks makes a positive long-term impact in people’s lives.

Who Was Interviewed?

Sandy and Joie are both members of the Executive Board of Alternative Breaks and are Global Health minors who remember the time they spent with Damar in Indiana working with children with mental disabilities. Areana is a Global Health and General Biology double major who went to a Native American reservation in South Dakota to deal with social issues of poverty and is currently a site leader for a week-long trip coming up in Hawaii.

What were your experiences?

Joie and Sandy remember their trip working with Damar in Indiana at a residential facility for mentally disabled children.

J: The school had caretakers present for the kids around the clock. They devoted their time completely to the patients, they ran class time, recreation time, and me. We assisted the caretakers in spending time with the kids. We got to teach them lessons, run maintenance. We even assisted in their prom. We helped outfit all the students, they all have their own style, their own thing, and we were able to help them with that. You could just see their faces when they left the prep room. It’s the only time they get to feel like that.

S: Usually you don’t have much visibility to students with disabilities, so it was good to immerse ourselves in that. We could see the extent of mental disabilities across a spectrum, they’re just like us.

J: We chose Damar because they are leading in what they do. They are completely government run, only one of their facilities is personally paid for. It’s good to see that the government is watching out for mental disabilities. It shows that we need to raise awareness, especially here in California. They stayed in the facility for two to three years to learn how to be independent. It’s shocking the things you see there, only for one week. The patients have many problems, including self-harm and repeated screaming. But the caretakers are so compassionate. We need more people like that.

S: There is a stigma that people with mental disabilities can’t be competent people, or they can’t live on their own. Damar takes this stigma and helps make the children more independent. Everyone is capable of being dependent. They aren’t going to be there forever, but while the children are there the caretakers are there to help them live, and to help them live on their own. Having a place like Damar in more places in the world would be a good way to help relieve mental disability problems.

Areana worked at the Pineridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to learn about the lack of resources that Native Americans have to deal with every day.

A: It was really interesting. AB educates you and orients you to the culture that you are visiting, you really learn a lot about the community. I was working with the Lakota people, and got to do a lot of self-education about their history and the trials they had dealth with. I worked with an alumni participant to cover their history. We realized that there is a lot of politics and stigma surrounding Native American reservations, and a lot of it has to do with a lack of resources. We had to fight stigma surrounding the reservation, like the idea that if there is a lot of poverty and social issues at the reservation, why don’t people just move. The real problem is a lot more complicated, tied to land and political issues. At the reservation itself there is definitely a lack of resources, including education, and especially water. There weren’t a lot of water trucks out there, or a good water system. We did a lot of hard labor, like building outhouses. It was a small thing that we didn’t really think about, but it was heartening to see the difference it made for them. I also got to see a lot of need for access to health care, and how a lot of health problems stem from a lack of resources. It kind of shifted my paradigm about those issues. Because of a lack of resources there was also a lack of hope, and mental health issues related to it.

I approached AB because I wanted to do something that would make my reusme look shiny. But what I love is that there is a lot of room for self growth and reflection and orientation. I loved the focus on service. I was disappointed that I couldn’t make it to a trip to Peru, I felt like I lost an opportunity. But AB changed my perspective. I thought that I had to go to a third world country to see a global health issue. Not true. I went to South Dakota, and I saw why culture is so important in global health.. AB globally informs you, it helps you see global issues. The lessons I learned there helped me to change myself and helped me to see how everything is connected. When I say my paradigm shifted I mean it in every sense. AB is awesome.

What was the most challenging part?

J: The first day was the most shocking experience. You get completely surrounded by a lot of mentally disabled people and people caring for them. Walking in you are just overwhelmed. That was the most shocking time, the first time we met the kids during dodgeball. They went all out on us, no mercy. They’re just as competitive and capable as us, and they want to hit you. It was many conflicting thoughts on the first day, and getting over that is the challenge.

S: Coming back and feeling the culture shock was the most challenging You wonder if we can do more, and you feel helpless. It was great to re-orient about the social justice issues with AB and learn more about what we can do at home. Sharing experiences with others and trying to continue service with nonprofits here are part of that reorientation. But it is still hard to find nonprofits that correlate with the issues and it is difficult to readjust to life here.

A: Reorientation was definitely the hardest part. You feeling of being a fish out of water when you go to your service project, but then when you come back you feel the same way. The reorientation process is another thing that makes AB so special. They encourage you to use that experience to make your community better. There is a Native American student council here, and I was able to go to their meetings and try to show support. I wasn’t used to that kind of service. There’s still work to be done back at home and there is always work to be done.

How has Alternative Breaks made a difference in your life?

J: You get more out of it then you expect. You get to step out of your comfort zone, get educated and trained on social justice issues. You get a more out of doing AB. It is not superficial. You just have to experience it yourself.

S: My favorite part about AB was the emphasis on reflection. It brings meaning to what we do through service. You can regroup and talk about what you are doing and why, and make an impact on yourself and the group. It is a place where you can learn about social justice issues, but it is also a place of self growth. It is also the place where I met all of my best friends: good passionate people. AB is great, I love AB!

A: I learned that culture goes both ways. We’re trying to create a dialogue. We represent the university, as well as the group. We’re ambassadors in a way. AB fit so well into the global health major, its mission statement is to create globally conscious active students committed to lifelong service. It was an important part of my college experience. I wish I had joined sooner.