MISSOULA – This spring break a group of University of Montana students is foregoing relaxation and recreation to lend a hand to those living on the margins of their community.
They are participating in the University’s Alternative Breaks, a campus-wide program providing students with unique opportunities for service and experiential learning.
For seven days this month, the students will travel to St. George, Utah, to work with Habitat for Humanity, helping build a home for a family in need while also learning about issues around homelessness.
“Going to Florida for spring break just didn’t appeal to me,” said biology major Jack Hanson, who has participated in several Alternative Breaks and will be one of the student leaders for the trip to St. George. “I take pleasure in doing something positive for the world.”
Emily Lynch, manager for UM’s Experiential Learning, said the Alternative Breaks program reflects UM’s overall commitment to civic service, a dedication that in 2022 led Washington Monthly – a magazine of U.S. politics and government based in Washington, D.C. – to rank UM the top university in the country for service to its community and the country.
“These experiences lead to friendships, the students get to see other parts of the country and for many it really lights a fire to do even more volunteer work,” Lynch said. “I wish there was something like this when I was a college student.”
Students in the program, she added, represent all majors and class levels, and the volunteer work they’ve undertaken in the past includes restoring native vegetation in Arches National Park and working with early childhood education programs in San Diego.
Last year, Hanson joined fellow students who traveled to Salt Lake City to volunteer at the Utah Food Bank and a homeless shelter.
He said seeing others struggle to access the basic necessities of life can be emotionally taxing, but in the group’s evening reflections “it got us thinking more deeply about what we can do to help.”
This Alternative Breaks will be a first for junior Sebastian Driver, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology and Master of Public Administration through UM’s 4 +1, a first-of-its-kind program that allows students to earn both degrees in five years instead of six.
Driver previously has volunteered with UM’s chapter of The Wildlife Society and said he’s long had a desire to help wildlife and humans alike.
“When I heard about this trip through the Davison Honors College, I thought what better way to help others and learn how we can tackle homelessness?” said Driver, who is also a member of the Montana 10 program and treasurer of the Mortar Board honor society. “I want to be a steward of change for the good.”
Second-year student Bree Knutson was active in volunteer activities in high school, including traveling to Ecuador to work in a homeless shelter, and she was looking forward to an opportunity to help others again.
“I really don’t have any carpentry skills,” said Knutson, who is studying communicative sciences and disorders, “so I am hoping to learn more about what you do to build houses.”
The program, she added, is also a great way to meet new people
“Everybody involved in the program is very friendly and excited to do this,” said Knutson, who recently volunteered to start working for the Flagship After-School Program, which provides out-of-school opportunities for youth at eight Missoula County Public Schools. “I have been to Utah, too, and I love its beauty.”
Lynch said students occasionally couple their Alternative Breaks program with service-learning independent study credits. Most, though, do it on a volunteer basis. The trip costs are sponsored by the Dairy Products Commission, but students are asked to pitch in $100 toward their expenses. Some financial assistance also is available.
“This is such a worthwhile program,” Lynch added. “I encourage all our students to participate at some point in their college career.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.