Austin Peay State University (APSU)
Clarksville, TN – A few years ago, a group of Austin Peay State University (APSU) students found themselves deep in the Florida Everglades, helping clean up an abandoned military site.
Few people knew the installation existed because, during the Cold War, the U.S. Government kept 11,000-pound Nike Hercules missiles – all aimed at Cuba – at this hidden base.
“The park rangers took us way deep into the Everglades, where they were prepping a national park memorial for the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Alexandra Wills, director of the APSU Center for Service-Learning and Community Engagement, said. “It was top secret – no one knew it was there – and we were prepping the buildings so tourists could come in and see it. Our students got a cool history lesson about the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Those students volunteered to work at the site through Austin Peay State University’s Alternative Break program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this spring. Since 2009, service-minded students have substituted relaxing spring, summer, fall and winter break vacations in favor of making a difference through volunteering. In the last decade, the University has hosted 53 alternative break trips to 16 states and two countries, with more than 360 students engaging in 9,310 hours of service.
“We bonded through the dust storms of the back area of clothing donations,” Cassondra Meadows said in 2017, when she returned from an alternative break trip to the Louisville Rescue Mission. “We bonded through rain sprinkles and blatantly denying that there were clearly storm clouds in the sky while we explored the zoo. We bonded as we huddled and jumped around for warmth. We bonded over dishes, cooking supper and playing (and losing) at Phase 10. I was so blessed to be able to meet such an amazing group of people.”
The work students perform varies from restoring old missile sites to helping educate impoverished children living in Appalachia. In January, a group traveled to Houston, Texas, to rebuild a house damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
“Doing something of service for another is a real healthy reset,” Sean Siple, a student on the Houston trip, said. “It brings gratitude, perspective and self-worth.”
The First Trip
In the spring of 2009, Wills introduced the alternative break concept to the APSU community.
“Of all 52 trips, that was probably the hardest work,” she said. “We had to carry all our tools five miles in. I’m talking chainsaws and pickaxes.”
The Adventures Continue
There is no standard alternative break trip. A few years ago, students spent a week at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, building an ocean reef out of oyster shells.
“Two tons of oyster shells from Texas were shipped up, and we shoved the oysters into these netted bags and then took them to the ocean and built a reef,” she said. “That was a cool trip but some of the hardest work.”
Then there was the time a group waded through debris floating off the coast of Miami.
“They took us out on boats to these barrier islands, and we cleaned endless amounts of cruise ship trash that had washed on shore,” Wills said. “They found a brick of cocaine washed up on the island. And it looked like it does in the movies. They got to meet the district attorney on that trip.”
Ten years later, these service adventures continue to attract students, with several spending this spring break at volunteer sites in Nashville, Memphis and St. Louis, and this May, a group will head to Oklahoma to volunteer at The Nature Conservancy’s bison ranch. And the students who participate can expect to return home with new perspectives on the world.
“After being back in the states for a little over 24 hours, I realized I came back as a totally different person,” Gisela Herrera said after an international trip to Ecuador in 2016. “I have learned not to take anything for granted, because the children of Ecuador have a fraction of what I had when I was their age. I learned to appreciate the little things in life, like hot showers and water pressure.”
For information on Austin Peay’s alternative break trips, visit www.apsu.edu/volunteer
More on the APSU Alternative Break Program
The mission of the Alternative Break Program is to engage students in meaningful and collaborative community service in an effort to increase awareness of social and environmental issues and strengthen the communities in which they serve as well as foster a strong sense of community among trip participants and to the university as a whole.
- The student will be able to connect applied experiences derived from participation in alternative break trips with relevant knowledge acquired from exposure to course work from multiple academic disciplines.
- The student will be able to adapt and apply skills, abilities, theories or methodologies acquired in classroom settings to address novel situations or problems in alternative break settings.
- The student will be able to demonstrate the ability to engage in meaningful self-reflection that leads to self-awareness and a sense of competence to effectively respond to new and challenging contexts.