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Savello '18: The ethical quandaries of alternative spring break

​Next week, while many college students fly off to tropical destinations or binge watch “New Girl” in the comfort of their cozy childhood rooms, others will be getting their hands dirty building houses for Habitat for Humanity, helping out with environmental issues in another state or immersing themselves in the daily life of a new culture. These types of activities, often known as “alternative spring break” programs, are offered at many colleges and send students to a variety of destinations both domestic and international.

While these types of alternative spring breaks are more productive than Spring Breakers-esque trips to Miami and other beachfront destinations, they might not necessarily be as selfless as they seem. Many of them provoke a wide range of ethical questions regarding the moral integrity of the travelers and their regard for the people inhabiting the communities they visit.

Dartmouth, for example, offers a trip to Denver, Colorado entitled the “Urban Indian Experience,” offering students the possibility of better understanding the challenges faced by the area’s Native American population and receiving “cultural programming” through collaboration with community partners. This trip, which emphasizes the personal benefits for the students while simultaneously referring to the Native American residents as a group to be analyzed and studied, sounds more like a convoluted form of “voluntourism” than anything else.

Voluntourism, which is currently one of the fastest-growing travel trends, is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of volunteering and tourism. Rather than spending a week sun bathing or sightseeing, many opt instead to travel to work in homeless shelters and orphanages, build schools or teach English. The end goal is to use travel time more productively by simultaneously exploring a new culture and giving back to the community, creating a symbiotic relationship between the travelers and the local residents. While the intent is genuine, the impact of these programs often creates a dangerously unsustainable culture of charity work.

Fortunately, unlike the “Urban Indian Experience,” there are many trips that are oriented toward both understanding and helping community members, reducing the ethical ambiguity. Such programs include initiatives to build preschools in the Dominican Republic (Dartmouth) and work with Habitat for Humanity in Arkansas (Boston University). But a common theme across many of the alternative spring break trips is the focus on personal gain, which may come in the form of a new experience, cultural education, skill building or sightseeing.

It’s not necessarily a problem that personal gain is one of the motivating factors behind voluntourism-style alternative spring break trips. But it is problematic when personal gain overpowers the needs of the community members, turning the trip into more of a self-fulfilling prophecy or resume builder than a genuine act of community service. In other words: It’s important to consider whether students care more about putting “cultural programming” down on their resume and getting Instagram pictures of scenic views than they do about meaningful social change. I’m in no place to make assumptions about the ethical considerations of individual trips, but I hope to emphasize the importance of pointing out the (abundant) pitfalls that tend to dog such initiatives.

Though Brown has no formal alternative spring break options like some Ivy counterparts, groups like the Student Activities Office, Swearer Center for Public Service and Brown/RISD Hillel have helped organize service projects for students around the country. In the past, students in the Brown Christian Fellowship have participated in the Katrina Relief Urban Plunge, and Brown Disaster Relief members have travelled to Swan Quarter, North Carolina to help address flood damage from Hurricane Irene, to name a few examples. There have also been local service programs, including a restoration project for a century-old synagogue in Providence as part of Rhode Island School of Design Alternative Spring Break.

This spring break, if you choose to partake in an alternative spring break program, be aware of the power dynamics and sustainability associated with your trip, especially when traveling to developing nations. Often, the relationship between the privileged, highly educated volunteers and the local community members is a strained one, resulting in a culturally disruptive “paternalistic model” where volunteers act as though they know what’s best for the locals without  the appropriate knowledge or experience to make such claims. And even if these unequal relations do not take place, “voluntourism” has the potential to wreak havoc on the economies of developing countries by creating a colonial-like dependency on outside assistance that is not sustainable. Ultimately, whether or not you participate in an alternative spring break program is up to you, but it is important to be wary of your own motives as well as your potential cultural impact before hopping on the next plane.

Samantha Savello ’18 will be binging on Netflix over spring break and can be reached at

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