AU’s Alternative Break Programs: Redefining College Learning | The American Word

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AU’s Alternative Break Programs: Redefining College Learning

Lindsay Maizland | 5/13/14 3:33pm

As we searched for an NGO in Sulukule, a neighborhood in Istanbul, Turkey, a man approached us and explained how to get to the nearest museum.

He looked at us, a group of 12 obviously foreign students and our faculty advisor, and probably thought, “Tourists come to Istanbul to look at museums and mosques, not to engage in social issues plaguing the city.”

We continued to wander. To our left stood newly constructed apartment buildings made of sleek wood. To our right, cracked cement buildings covered with graffiti and protected by barred windows.

A wall of rusting sheet metal divided the two sides.

We spent months preparing to spend our spring break on an Alternative Break trip. We discussed the effects of urban development, read articles on minority groups and watched documentaries on gentrification and government policy.

In Sulukule we were bombarded by the reality that we studied for so long. The reality that the Turkish government destroyed hundreds of homes to construct expensive apartments for the wealthy. The reality that 380 people were forced to move 25 miles from their jobs and where their families had lived for generations. And the reality that these people eventually came back to Sulukule and now five families live in one apartment; the new apartments stand almost completely empty.

“Leaving Sulukule felt like breathing in deeply after being underwater. I felt guilty, knowing that I could leave the place that made me feel unsettled so easily,” said Carly Messinger, a senior on the trip.

Our Istanbul trip was just one of 15 different Alternative Breaks that AU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service offers every year. Over 150 students spend their winter, spring and summer breaks in countries around the world participating in hands on experience in social justice issues.

The hands on experience and interaction with people affected by the issues make Alt Break truly life changing.

“You can learn a theory in a class, but its not until you meet people and have that personal connection that you really understand the issue,” said Shoshanna Sumka, the Assistant Director for Global Learning and Leadership in the CCES.

On our fifth day, we met with an organization that provides food, clothing and medical assistance to refugees.

My compliment on a woman’s scarf led to a conversation that sparked my interest in refugee rights. Before seeking asylum in Turkey, she was a teacher in Iran. She hopes to soon be resettled in Baltimore after already spending two years unemployed in Istanbul.

“Maybe I’ll see you again someday,” she said to me.

While our Istanbul Alternative Break focused on learning about the issues, other trips participate in more hands on community service. Members on the South Africa trip worked closely with community partners developing school curriculums and working on their website.

When the week or two-week long trips are completed, the service doesn’t stop. CCES prides itself in encouraging students to continue serving locally and nationally through post trip activism once they are back at AU.

“It’s not just a one time thing. It’s a way of life,” said Sumka.

Each group completes different post trip projects and focuses on tackling a variety of issues. Our group is volunteering at organizations that assist refugees in the D.C. area.

“I think that everyone should go on an Alternative Break at least once during their career at AU,” said Sumka.

For more information, see the Alternative Break homepage at