Opinion: Through Alternative Break, I learned more about the world – and myself.


This past December, I went on an Alternative Break trip. The trip took a week out of my winter break, but it was completely worth it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. 

Alternative Break trips, offered by the Brain Center, are a part of a national organization called Break Away. The Break Away non-profit was created by two Vanderbilt University students in 1991 and the project has since expanded nationwide under the mission “to inspire and activate thoughtful community engagement through justice-based trainings and programs.” The organization fosters young individuals through civic engagement and experiential learning. 

The trips offered at BW last semester were Triumph and Trust Toward the Future and Empowering Youth: Connecting in Community to Create Change. When applying, students were not told where the trip was going, and were instead given quick summaries of the missions behind each trip. 

For my trip, I was intrigued by the premise of a one-week excursion to a different city where I got to learn more about different communities while serving in whatever way I could. The trip took place in Chicago, mainly in the suburbs, where I, with other students, volunteered at the Rice Education Center’s Children’s Home and Aid Society. We set up Christmas decorations, hung out with the kids, set up a gift shop and helped them pick presents, all while learning about the center, community and experiences through daily discussions. 

I will forever appreciate the experience and be glad that I went, but the process of getting myself to that point was not easy. 

Being someone who had not had much experience with being independent, I constantly doubted my “preparedness” to even go on this trip. I had never been anywhere overnight without my family (no, not even sleepovers), and here I am, present-day, commuting to a school not even 30 minutes away from my home. I never had opportunities to go out on my own for long periods of time. I would be lying if I said that aspect of the trip wasn’t a huge motivator for my application. 

Even so, I know the reason I stuck it out — and didn’t withdraw my application even though my anxious self so desperately wanted to — was because of the experiences and engagement I could get out of the trip. I think it is important for everyone to experience a world outside of the one they know and understand most. Especially being someone interested in non-profit work and social services, I enjoyed getting to know these kinds of settings through the Rice Center and our trip down to the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in the south side and to various museums throughout Chicago. 

“It felt especially important to be able to experience [the AB trip] because, through me being uncomfortable and learning how to deal with being in an uncomfortable setting, I was able to grow and learn something from someone else’s community and take that information back,” first-year Jamia Basit-Hightower told me of her experience in Chicago. 

Getting to meet the types of people who worked in these settings helped me confirm my passions for similar ventures. I am currently undeclared in my major and, like most 18-year-olds, am not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have creative passions and desires to promote understanding between different communities and groups of people, but I have always had trouble translating that into a career for myself. 

Even as I know I will continue to question what I truly want to do in life, this AB experience allowed me to better understand my vision and the possible paths that I could go on. I listened to and worked with amazing community leaders who made me want to find environments with people of those same mindsets. I was inspired by the passion and drive behind these individuals’ actions and their work itself was admirable. I was especially intrigued and moved by the community work being done at the PBMR, and their mission to “restore human dignity, through hospitality, hope and healing.”  

I would recommend an Alternative Break to anyone who is interested in civic engagement and who wants the chance to explore a different part of the country. Every part of my trip to Chicago was memorable, from the communities that I got to interact with, the visions that I saw being put to life, to viewing the night skyline from afar and spending nights playing games with other trip participants. 

While there, we met with a community leader who spent his time educating us on his work and the work of the ministry while making sure to keep us all aware of why this type of work needed to be done in the first place. We discussed our understandings of civic engagement, restorative justice and how we felt about the movement and its impact, plus much more. 

I was inspired by these community leaders who refused to give up on their homes and community, even if much of the world had already done so, because it reminded me of my own feelings towards my origin of ethnicity. 

Being Palestinian and having gotten the chance to visit my family in the West Bank on multiple occasions, I have gotten to experience life with one of my communities. From walking through the terrain and picking fruit, to navigating through more bustling shopping districts and historical destinations, it is hard not to see the beauty of this serene, and yet also lively, home of many.  

Yet I cannot just sit by and idly ignore issues at hand in this same place that I am sure most are aware of. Even as I am away from this beautiful place that I consider a second home, I am constantly bombarded with news articles and headlines of violence and tension in the same land. I have always had a desire to foster a sense of community and understanding between the two majority groups of people that live on the land.  

Being at Precious Blood allowed me to see how this could play out and evaluate methods that I could do so. Even as the past tends continuously haunts people during difficult times and violent situations in the present-day, all we need are people to stand up and see what needs to be done now and who needs to be helped immediately. Doing so are the first necessary steps towards ensuring a just and loving society for all who inhabit it. I feel excitement and passion when I imagine myself doing so in the West Bank and I thank Precious Blood for reminding me that, even though it is not easy, it is possible to make change. The steps we take today build the foundation necessary for our future generations and change-makers to stand on and continue our hard work.