The Sunday Briefing – March 1, 2020

Dear colleagues,

We are now on high alert concerning the coronavirus. At this point, we know that we need to take it seriously. We have already had one major tabletop exercise with more than 75 university leaders. Major questions emerged from this gathering that we are now finding answers to. It may be hackneyed: we are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. You may view our special website for further information.

This past week, in the midst of the rising concern about the coronavirus, our students took their regularly scheduled Spring Break. “Spring Break” has become an icon of American popular culture. Go no further than two popular movies some five decades apart that dramatize this ritual of the end of winter and the advent of spring: Where the Boys Are (1960) and Spring Breakers (2013).

The former tells the story of the Ft. Lauderdale migration of Midwest college students seeking a good time during their party and booze-filled stay at the beach.

The latter is about four university students who rob a restaurant to fund their Spring break, are arrested and then bailed out by a violent partying drug dealer, with predictable results. Both movies tend to caricaturize most university students as mindless partying hedonists who live for the moment. 

Only an extremely naive university president would believe that hard-partying has disappeared. But I am very happy to tell you that some of our students are actually leveraging their Spring Breaks into acts of benevolence and kindness via FIU’s Alternative Breaks experience.

In fact, we had 55 students travel on six separate trips – one within the U.S. and five abroad – all participating in unique opportunities to engage in direct service and experiential learning. Those students volunteering abroad are in areas not impacted by coronavirus, and we were in contact with all of them to ensure they remain safe and informed.

Alternative Breaks have one goal – lifelong active citizenship, where a student’s community becomes a priority in all life decisions. This latest group of student travelers adds to FIU’s immensely successful alternative breaks program.

Did you know that since our first students took an alternative break in 1995 – 13 of them ventured four hours north to Zellwood, Florida during their Spring Break to volunteer at the Anthony House Homeless Shelter – FIU has organized more than 440 trips, with an estimated 6,331 student travelers and more than 150,491 hours of hours of community service?

This year’s alternative spring breakers visited Memphis, Tennessee, Lima and Cusco in Peru, San Jose, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Memphis, together with the organization Serve901, our students explored issues such as education equity, nutrition, civil rights and criminal justice reform.

Kassandra Sanz, a senior majoring in biochemistry, said she and her family have always made service an important part of their lives, and this trip to Memphis has given her yet another unique opportunity to give back.

This week, she worked on several initiatives, including the creation of a garden for a local elementary school.

“We started off our week … sorting through seeds that had been donated and creating irrigation tubes that would be placed in the gardens,” Sanz said. “We then had the opportunity to visit a local elementary school to work hands on in the garden, preparing it for students by taking out broken irrigation tubes, placing new ones and adding new soil.”

The group also worked with 5th graders learning how to run a business, which led to collaborations with companies such as Chick-Fil-A and FedEx, among others.

“I think participating in a program like Alternative Breaks gives students the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in service and what it means. I can confidently say that working with Alternative Breaks and the local community has taught me a great deal and I am even more inspired to take back what I’ve learned and use it to help my own community,” she said.

Two other groups traveled to Lima and Cusco, in Peru, and a third went to Buenos Aires – all of them focused on medical care. In Cusco, for example, our students assisted local nurses and doctors, dentists and specialists at clinics and hospitals for low-income families. Pre-med students, as well as first and second year medical and nursing students, measured patients’ weight, height, blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. Volunteers also helped make beds and sterilize equipment among other things.

Students who visited San Jose, Costa Rica explored the health and abundance of oceans worldwide, and the critical status of sea turtles as part of these ecosystems. Partnering with Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST), our students performed in-water studies at a rescue center that houses more than 100 sea turtles that are rehabilitated and then released into the wild. Specifically, our students monitored the feeding habitat used by sea turtles at different life stages to collect data about population structure, genetic origin, health status and in-water habitat use.

And in the Dominican Republic, in collaboration with Blue Missions, our students helped construct projects that provide clean water and sanitary environments to families in rural communities. Meanwhile, they learned about global inequality and the power of changemaking.

Originally known as the Alternative Spring Break program, this endeavor eventually changed its name to Alternative Breaks after offering year-round travel opportunities for students.

During the fall, winter, spring and summer breaks, students perform weekend or week-long projects for community agencies and learn about issues such as literacy, poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, the environment, and so much more.

Currently, Alternative Breaks is the largest student-run service-learning organization at FIU, and has received national recognition, including a first-place award in the 90s as Breakaway Program of the Year.

Our Alternative Breaks students have also been on the front lines during some of our nation’s most trying times. An Alternative Break group volunteered with the Ground Zero clean-up efforts, together with the Salvation Army, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. They were housed under the Salvation Army’s 35,000-square-foot tent, adjacent to Ground Zero, where they served food, took out trash and filled hospitality racks. Their work was even featured nationally on 60 Minutes and CBS’s 48 Hours. And in 2003 and 2004, FIU student groups headed to Biloxi, MS to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The life lessons that our students acquire with Alternative Breaks are invaluable. That is why at FIU we firmly believe in giving our Panthers the opportunities to become changemakers to improve the lives of their communities. For us, Spring Break is more than just a good party time. It’s a real opportunity for our students to demonstrate how we can take responsibility for our community and help to improve lives. That’s who we are. That’s what we do! One student at a time. For more information, you may visit our Alternative Breaks page.

In the Panther spirit,

Mark B. Rosenberg