For Humboldt State senior Elizet Bermudez, spring break may be time off from studying, but it's no vacation.

Trading in her spring break for preparing hot meals and doing outreach in the streets, Bermudez dedicated her vacation to serving the homeless citizens of San Francisco. Bermudez is one of eight HSU students who participated in alternative spring break this year, where they worked a combined total of 376 hours of community service in just five days.

Alternative spring break is an opportunity for students to impact communities and learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing society. Student volunteers are immersed in hands-on service while building leadership and relationship skills. CSU campuses across the state are utilizing alternative spring break programs to expose students to California's prevailing issues.

Through HSU's STEP UPP program, the alternative spring break experience showed Bermudez first-hand what it's like to be homeless in one of California's largest and wealthiest metropolitan areas. She worked alongside other student volunteers in local churches, shelters and support groups, opening her eyes to the lifestyle and struggles of the displaced.

"This experience gave me insight to how different areas of our society work simultaneously to assist with the disadvantaged people of California," said Bermudez. "I realized how I, as someone privileged enough to not have to suffer through it, could contribute and be an agent of social change."

CSU campuses are maximizing the alternative spring break experience to shape students into future community leaders. At Sacramento State, alternative spring breakers spent the week helping to rebuild Sonoma County, which was severely devastated by wildfires in October last year, burning 245,000 acres of land and the homes of 5,400 people.

Sac State students camped in cabins in Sonoma County, rolling up their sleeves to clean up parks, work at local food banks and join support groups to listen to the stories of wildfire victims.

"As a professor, I see the change that occurs when student volunteers come back into the classroom after an alternative spring break," said Dana Kivel, professor of Recreation, Parks & Tourism Administration at Sac State. "They have a deeper appreciation for their community and a sense of empathy that makes them better listeners, problem solvers and members of society. They have a better understanding of how complicated the world is and how they can engage in it."

Kivel says that students recognize their societal value and that they are more inclined to be active in their communities after they graduate. "They become more civically aware. They recognize that once they leave the university, there are opportunities out there for them to contribute, whether it's paid or volunteer work."

Addressing California's problems may be hard work, but student volunteers are also getting a spring break adventure unlike any other. CSU Monterey Bay's alternative spring breakers just returned from backpacking through the scenic and undeveloped mountains of Big Sur for a course on environmental justice.

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CSU Monterey Bay alternative spring breakers working to preserve the mountains of Big Sur. Photo courtesy of  CSUMB Community Engagement

For four days and three nights, student volunteers worked carefully along the edge of the mountains, maintaining trails and cleaning out plants and bushes. Each day, students carried their sleeping bags, gear and tents on their backs as they hiked for miles, working to preserve the mountains.

Many of the volunteers were first-time backpackers, being taken out of their comfort zones and finding new confidence to take on environmental and community challenges.

"There were several times during the trip where I doubted myself," said a student volunteer. "I discovered that I was completely capable of accomplishing things that felt impossible at times. I was able to connect with others who had great work ethic and a lot of knowledge on conservation."

Alternative spring break programs support Graduation Initiative 2025 goals through the high-impact practice of community-based learning. Through volunteer work, students become engaged on campus and in their communities, promoting academic success.