Getting the Big Picture on Alternative Breaks

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LMU students on an Alternative Break trip to the Philippines

Heather Domingo ’17 grew up listening to her grandmother talk about living and working on a farm in the Philippines. It was fairly typical of the stories that grandparents often tell their grandchildren––listened to, but not fully understood; appreciated, but too distant in time to truly relate.

In the summer of 2015, that changed.

That’s when Domingo, a rising senior political science major, signed up for an Alternative Break (AB) trip to the Philippines, where she and five other students spent two weeks of their summer vacation partnering with local organizations to learn about land rights, community organizing, and human trafficking. It was there that Domingo actually found herself in a field, doing precisely the type of work her grandmother had done decades before.

“While I was working, I felt really tired and stressed, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalled. “I felt almost lost, like why are we doing this?”

But Domingo later realized that feeling lost, and learning from the organizations LMU had partnered up with, was the whole point.

“They took us under their wings and showed us how things work, as opposed to us showing them what’s better,” she said.

LMU students learn a lot about how things work in the Philippines during their two-week trip. This year, students will arrive in the country on May 10––just a day after its 2016 presidential election.

“What’s really important are the community organizations that we partner with,” said Jessica Viramontes ’04, who’s entering her fifth year as AB Coordinator. “We like to show students how resilient and empowering these communities are.”

Students on this year’s trip will be partnering with GABRIELA––a women’s community organizing alliance––as they make their way through their itinerary. They’ll learn about the efforts of rural women to reclaim Hacienda Luisita, a 16,000-acre sugar plantation. They’ll visit women being held, without formal charges, as political prisoners. They’ll spend a day in Olongapo, a red-light district near a U.S. military base where sex trafficking is rampant, to learn how poverty, patriarchy, and militarization fuel the epidemic.

Then, before flying back to LAX on May 24, the group will spend a few days in Mindanao to learn about the indigenous Lumad, who are being displaced by U.S. and Canadian mining efforts.

As is often the case, the substantive focuses of the trip can serve as a touchstone for more personal reflection, as it did for Domingo.

“For me, it was very humbling and it made me understand more of how my grandma grew up and the lifestyle she had,” she said. “Those emotions can only be felt through actions, and not even the stories that families pass down can really fully express them.”

A shift in focus

The Alternative Breaks Program began at LMU in 2003 with three trips: Oakland, Ventura County, and San Lucas Tolimán.

In the 13 years since, the program has grown dramatically. Now, there are around 12 trips a year, although at one point there were as many as 21. Those trips have ranged from a 20-mile drive to East L.A. to a 27-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Students have tackled housing issues in Appalachia, worked with Navajo children in Tuba City, and provided assistance at a medical clinic in Jamaica.

“It really is an opportunity for students to be immersed,” said Pam Rector, the director of the Center for Service and Action (CSA). “They’re going to a region they may or may not have been to, to have an exchange with the people and community they’re with. In a way, it’s community-based learning.”

Rector, who has directed the CSA since 1998, has experienced that community-based learning many times, as a participant on AB trips to Morocco, San Lucas Tolimán, Cambodia, and New York City, to name just a few. LMU’s trips always include one faculty and one staff member, in addition to the student leaders and participants.

Echoing Viramontes, Rector emphasized the importance of the AB Program’s community partnerships.

“We generally don’t just parachute into a place and figure it out and work independently,” Rector said. “We usually work with nonprofits. In doing that, you’re working with people who have an interest in the community and are known by the community, so as you go into that immersion, the community itself is more open to you.”

At the heart of this mode of collaboration is the University’s hope that students make an authentic connection with the people they’re meeting and the issues they’re learning about. This is why the CSA is trying to get away from the all-too-common notion of AB trips as a sacrifice, where students give up part or all of their vacations to go “do service.”

“I really want us to move away from thinking of it as doing service, and make it a more educational-based trip,” said Viramontes. “We’re starting to really flip our participants from saying, ‘Let’s go, we’re going to teach,’ to being the students.”

She used the example of going to build houses in post-Katrina New Orleans. The practical problem with that project is that students generally don’t know how to build houses. Nor is the CSA eager to take job opportunities away from local laborers. But a focus on “doing service” might also tend to detract from students’ understanding the root causes of why Hurricane Katrina had such a devastating impact on the city, particularly on the poor.

“While we still might make service a part of it, our goal is to get students to look at the bigger picture,” said Viramontes.

She pointed to the Chicago and Tucson trips, which took place this past spring, as examples. While students on the Chicago trip gained exposure to grassroots community organizing, they also received training on institutional racism and oppression. And, while students on the Tucson trip did water drops in the desert for sojourning migrants, they also listened to those migrants’ stories, and discussed ways to become advocates of immigration reform.

Fostering global citizenship

LMU’s AB trips have three components: pre-trip action, the trip itself, and post-trip action. Before the trip, student leaders take a one-unit course taught by Viramontes, and other participants agree to attend a certain number of educational meetings before departure.

The post-trip action, on the other hand, is a way for AB participants to bring their experience back to the bluff. It could be an art exhibit, an awareness week, or a panel discussion––anything that engages the LMU community on the domestic and international issues they learned about on their trip.

“Students care deeply about what they’ve learned, and they want to bring it back and share it with their community, be it over dinner with friends or some kind of an action,” said Rector. “I think that’s part of the beauty of being a smaller school––you have this experience and you take it back to your circle of people.”

For Rector, the AB Program helps to foster the development of “global citizens.” Cristina Garcia ’16, a senior liberal studies major who co-led last year’s AB trip to the Philippines, agrees. She added that this global citizenship requires students to be creative in finding ways to advocate for causes abroad, particularly when they’re so far away.

She harkened back to a reflection from her time in the Philippines, which has become something of a mantra for her:

“There is no goal that is too big and no impact that is too small.”