Break Away: the Alternative Breaks Movement

This year Break Away celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Founded at Vanderbilt University, Break Away: the Alternative Break Connection, Inc. is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports the development of quality alternative break programs.  Break Away provides training and information primarily to colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations interested in creating lifelong active citizens through these intensive service-learning programs. Break Away currently has a network of over 100 chapter schools, more than 400 nonprofit partners, and hundreds of individual members worldwide, through which constituents have access to the newest ideas and a broad range of support in the national alternative break movement. Jill Piacitelli, the executive director of Break Away shares some of her thoughts on Break Away’s work and how it has impacted the collegiate experience.

Break Away allows students to find themselves in community. Piacitelli explains, “Everything is about identity at college, I am a Republican, I am a Democrat, I am a soccer player. Break Away has added to the list, I am an Alternative Breaker and ultimately an active citizen.” She elaborates, “There is pride in saying that.” Indeed, Piacitelli shares that, “Break Away is one of the best student led models” as the Alternative Break trips are completely under the wing of the students involved.

As Break Away continues to spread throughout the nation when asked why this movement for better active citizenry has been so successful in reaching out to one hundred and fifty campuses in twenty years, Piacitelli replied that, “there is a real commitment to student leadership.” The executive director explained that there is a tendency for adult staff to look over their shoulder and supervise projects that are meant to be student led and with Break Away students are responsible in leading the Alternative Break trips. She continued, “Students are in full charge of the experience as a whole. Students who are involved attend meetings, study the social issues, the leaders create a budget, plan fundraising, build an education program for the participants, and create relationships with community partners.” By giving students independence in managing the Alternative Break Trips they are given the opportunity to integrate themselves with the community and take personal action to make their Alternative Break trip a time to learn and grow as an active citizen. Piacitelli adds that students are able to “focus on the Active Citizen Continuum as a catalyst experience and create quality Alternative Breaks. This is a powerful alchemy for students as it galvanizes their work as active citizens in the community.”  By leading in the community students find themselves and through this service learning are able to discover their purpose in helping others.

When asked what are her hopes for the future of Break Away, Piacitelli revealed, “to continue to expand” and to build deeper relationships with community partners. Finally, to provide leadership jobs and careers for college graduates who have been active citizens throughout their time in college. Break Away allows students to find their calling through civic participation in the community. By learning about the various social issues and finding one that strikes a chord within, students find their mission in life and how to get involved in order to improve their society. Active citizenship ignites passion and brings out the best in people. It is this energy that allows the Break Away movement to thrive.

by Sagra Alvarado