In March, I had the unique opportunity to serve as a graduate student chaperone for an Alternative Spring Break trip to Detroit, Michigan, with students at the University of South Carolina. I heard the trip would require construction work, and I had an image of myself in my worn undergraduate t-shirts with a hammer and nails laughing in the sunshine over spring break with students, and gathering in the evening for significant group reflection that inspired laughter and tears. The day our group left for Detroit, I loaded my oversized suitcase along with nine students and a professional staff member into a 15 passenger van and proceeded to Michigan.
Here are some highlights from my trip with some advice related to participating as an alternative spring break advisor / chaperone:
Go for it! The volunteer opportunity came as an email six months ago on a listserv asking for professional and graduate student help. I informally replied to the contact person my interest. At the time, I was not able to predict how busy my spring would be with my graduate assistantship, academic coaching, and summer internships interviews. As the trip neared, so did my eager anticipation (and perhaps my anxiety) for the trip. There were certainly moments prior to the trip where I thought, “Shouldn’t I be using that week to relax? Catch up on work? Sleep?” But my advice to you, if I had any for this, is to go for it!
You may think you have control, but you have no idea. Volunteer opportunities are always a tricky thing. You have to be beyond flexible (nearly fluid) to have a successful experience. urther, as a chaperone you may think in a moment of complete naiveté that you have some form of control beyond what the students have. This may be true as far as holding the pre-paid gas card, but completely alien from the truth in many other ways. The student leader who coordinated and planned the service trip revealed details of the trip coordination as the trip moved forward. My advice: Ensure students are safe and (relatively) happy and watch the group dynamic and student leadership in the making. Support the student leader as needed, but be happy to give up the reigns, and watch the learning process of your students.
Community building is essential. It takes more than a bus ride. As a chaperone, you sometimes only have the trip to help develop community within the group. Our group did not meet regularly prior to the trip but would have benefited greatly from such opportunity. Recognize the value community building brings to your service trip, make it a priority, and schedule time to create group community prior to the trip. This further allows you, as a chaperone, to gain an understanding of the needs of individuals in the group and benefits you during the trip as group dynamic issue comes into play.
There will probably be group dynamic issues. Recognize this and roll with it. Support your student leader in understanding their role in group conflict and the outstanding opportunity for growth that comes from it. As the chaperone, ensure that all rules are being followed, and show impartiality during the conflict. Help students, individually or in the group, process the conflict afterward, and discuss what they have gained from this particular experience.
Not everyone in your group will be thrilled about the service opportunity. You may run into an issue where a student is not happy to be working on homes, interacting with children, or assisting the aging community. As a chaperone, encourage the students that are enjoying the service experience, and work with individuals who are not. Intentional discussions to express mutual expectations prior to the trip are key to avoiding this issue, but in the moment you can help the student recognize the strengths they bring to this particular project and the skills they are gaining. Help the student make connections between their service projects this week and their multiple roles back at their home institution and local community.
Students will form meaningful moments with their peers, sometimes (gasp) without your help. You will be amazed and how your students interact. It was inspiring for me to play cards in the evening and watch as the group of students encouraged and supported each other. As much as I would love to take credit for the deepened relationships among the group, I can’t. Meaningful moments can be created without intentionality. While it is important to create moments for reflection and team building, recognize the value of unplanned moments of meaning.
Student learning is essential, but take time to think about your own learning, too. I can guarantee you will learn as a chaperone on an Alternative Spring Break trip with 24/7 student contact. Recognize the importance of student learning, but also think of your own growth during the trip. Encourage others to break barriers, but do the same yourself.
Journal during the trip. During formalized reflection, give your own personal thoughts from the trip. This will encourage students to reflect and think about the affect their current work has on their current and future roles as students and professionals.
It’s an adventure, and it’s worth it. Alternative Spring Break trips are true adventures. Treat these trips as such, and recognize that adventures come with responsibilities. Prepare for the adventure accordingly. Alternative Spring Break trips require hard work and preparation, but they are worth it.
Jaime Shook is a graduate student in the Higher Education Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina (USC). She serves as a graduate assistant for University 101, the first-year seminar course, and as an academic skills coach for the Academic Centers for Excellence (ACE) at the University.