The Alternative Spring Break program started in 2002/2003 and, from a modest beginning of five students, has grown dramatically in both its participant base and number of experiences offered to Western students. Below is a recollection of the first ASB experience and a program timeline, outlining the history of ASB.
In 2003, after hearing about the benefits of Community Engaged Learning at a national Student Affairs conference, and after hearing Bill Strickland give an address at the University of Western Ontario, five student leaders and two staff from the Division of Housing and Ancillary Services travelled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during Reading Week to serve and learn.
From a sleeping bag on the second floor of a dilapidated building, Bill Strickland built one of the most extraordinary organizations in America, employing and training thousands of underprivileged citizens at the Manchester Craftsman Guild and Bidwell Training Centre, both in Pittsburgh. We wanted to meet this extraordinary community leader and we wanted our students to believe they could be extraordinary as well.
We spent our days in Pittsburgh volunteering with several community agencies, including a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen/food delivery program, and a group of young people working to turn an abandoned church into a place for musicians and artisans to develop their talent. We also visited the Manchester Craftsman Guild - the place that had inspired our journey.
We spent our evenings in a Pittsburgh hostel, reflecting about what we'd learned from each of the people we'd met, and the experiences we'd had. Students were stunned by the poverty they witnessed, and inspired by the dedication of community members to make significant and long-lasting change. Our dialogue was rich with questions (more questions than answers), and students were eager to engage with each other on topics from homelessness to economic systems to social justice.
Students returned after the week to join campus groups, volunteer at local agencies, and meet together to discuss what was next for each of them on their journey to engaged citizenship!
We knew this program had touched upon a real gap in students' learning: civic education.
Was it possible we could provide even more students with this kind of hands-on service experience and deep learning?