Spring Break Experience Changes Perspectives, Fosters Civic Responsibility

A dozen or more high school students from Greenhills School annually forego a stereotypical spring break vacation of sunny beaches or snowy ski slopes, choosing to spend a week unplugged living in Detroit, learning about the city’s history and the challenges it faces, and engaging in community service projects. The Alternative Spring Break program reflects the school’s philosophy that ownership fosters genuine engagement, so students are responsible for researching and selecting where to devote their time and energy.

A favorite activity is working with the volunteer organization Motor City Blight Busters—swinging sledgehammers in demolition work while breaking some of their own negative perceptions of the city. They tutor at local elementary schools, and a series of brown bag lunches with entrepreneurs offers a unique and deeply informed perspective on Detroit’s history and trajectory. Students learn first-hand about civic responsibility from people committed to it.

Visits to local galleries, museums, and theaters provide a broader understanding of the resurgence of art, music, and grassroots political action. Nightly written and oral reflections help them process and share these experiences. “Students learn about themselves and their responsibility to engage in community,” says Service Learning Director Alyssa Friendly, the program’s designer.

Alumni of the program have served internships in the Detroit Mayor’s office, created a similar program at the College of Wooster in Ohio, and given a Youth Ted-Talk about the experience.

“It’s inspired me to find ways to intertwine service and leadership with the rest of my life,” says Melanie Stewart ’17, a co-leader this year. “The impact people are making right now is so inspiring—it becomes infectious when we spend time in the thick of it.”

Does your school do something similar?

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