Giving back: William & Mary students will travel far and near for holiday service trips

The Branch Out alternative break, which is part of the college’s community engagement initiative, will send 35 students to Nicaragua, Haiti and North Carolina next month.

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College of William & Mary students arrive in Jinotega, Nicaragua for an alternative break last year. (Courtesy of Outreach360 / WYDaily.com)

While many college students will take a much-needed break after their fall semester exams and relax with their family over the holiday break, Giorgina Agostini and a handful of other students from the College of William & Mary will use their limited time off to give a whole lot back.

Agostini is among 35 students from the school who will travel near and far over the upcoming winter holiday to participate in an alternative break, which is an immersive service trip where students engage in direct service with a community partner organization.

“Growing up, I was taught that giving back to a community is the best way to show love,” said the 19-year-old Agostini, a sophomore, who grew up in Oakton, Va. and also participated in the program last year.

The Branch Out alternative break, which is part of the community engagement initiative at W&M, involves students who volunteer to travel locally, across the United States and around the globe in small groups. Once they arrive at their designated location, the students work in partnership with host organizations on community-driven service and social justice projects.

Over the winter break, the school will feature four trips during the first week in January. The locations include Cima, Haiti (the trip will be focused on education); Jinotega, Nicaragua (education); Nandiri, Nicaragua (housing); and Charlotte, North Carolina (LGBTQ issues on college campuses).

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A W&M student in Cima, Haiti for an alternative break last year. (Courtesy of Gabie Aurel / WYDaily.com)

“We have trips all year round as spring break tends to be the most popular,” said Meghan Foley, who is the Fellow for Alternative Breaks within the Office of Community Engagement at W&M.

“The idea is to offer an alternative for students, who want to engage a community and experience a whole new culture. They go into each trip with an open mind as we prepare them to have their expectations challenged, whether it’s during an international trip or close to home.”

Two shorter service trips will also happen during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend as one will take place in Williamsburg, working with the Lemon Project, and the other is in Richmond, Va. working with a housing organization.

Foley participated in the Branch Out alternative break during her four years as a W&M student and now, as a staff adviser, she helps maintain partnerships with the host communities in need.

“We have long-term relationships at these sites as we have been doing these same trips for the last five years,” she said. “We’re in it for the long game, which helps us to be more effective. We strive to maintain these mutually-beneficial partnerships because the students are learning and the communities continue to improve.”

The Branch Out alternative break has a very strong reputation among similar programs at other U.S. universities, Foley said, as it was named program of the year in Breakaway’s 2011 National Alternative Break Awards.

Breakaway is a non-profit organization that helps more than 300 colleges and universities across the country promote alternative breaks.

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W&M students in Cima, Haiti for an alternative break last year. (Courtesy of Gabie Aurel / WYDaily.com)

Agostini was attracted to the W&M program last year as a freshman and she is looking forward to returning to Nandiri, Nicaragua next month to help local masons construct a house for a family in need.

“It will be a very simple house,” said Agostini, whose parents were born in Peru and Uruguay and has made many visits to Latin America.

“There are no individual rooms, just four walls and a roof. But there is a severe housing shortage in Nicaragua so this family will be very happy just to have an actual house.”

The process starts well before Agostini and her fellow classmates arrive in Nicaragua. For this particular trip, W&M’s Branch Out alternative break has a partnership with Bridges to Community, a non-profit organization, in Nicaragua that helped purchase the land for the house and hire the local masons for the project.

Agostini said the land grant is put under the wife’s name because of constructed gender norms that exist in the country and “it encourages the family to stay together after the house is built”.

While in Nicaragua, the W&M students will work with Bridges to Community advisers, who usually speak the local language and provide on-site support for the students.

Seven other W&M students will join Agostini next month on the housing project and a few of them will be making return trips to the region, which has limited electricity and no running water.

“We have a good idea of what we’re getting into so when we arrive, we can get right to work,” said Agostini, who is not afraid of taking showers with a bucket of water.

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W&M students in Jinotega, Nicaragua for an alternative break last year. (Courtesy of Outreach360 / WYDaily.com)

Last year, the locals were surprised and then delighted when they realized Agostini spoke fluent Spanish even though “they made fun of my accent”. Aside from working on the house, she reached out to the local high school students to discuss many issues that ranged from government to the local environment.

Which is all part of being an active citizen, Foley said.

“Our goal is for the students to engage, prioritise community needs and work against injustice wherever they are,” Foley said.

“We’re are creating connections. It is easier to talk about these injustices when they are away and see them first-hand. Then bring home what they learn. There are connections between Haiti and Williamsburg that are not as different as we think. These students are learning that.”

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com