W&M receives national award for alternative breaks program

  • A different kind of breakThe William & Mary Branch Out alternative breaks program offers students opportunities to learn about social justice issues while serving communities at regional, national and international destinations. The students pictured here participated in the recent W&M Haiti Compact alternative break.

    Photo by Wesley Ng

    A different kind of break
  • Spreading smilesBrian Focarino '11 plays with a child at Grace Children's Hospital during the W&M Haiti Compact alternative break.

    Photo by Wesley Ng

    Spreading smiles
  • Learning and servingTimmy Siverd, Katie Fottrell and Kylee Ponder touring farm run by Sonje Ayiti during the W&M Haiti Compact alternative break.

    Photo by Wesley Ng

    Learning and serving
  • Hands-on learningWesley Ng and Katie Fottrell give a handwashing demonstration during the W&M Haiti Compact alternative break.

    Courtesy photo

    Hands-on learning

The College of William and Mary’s Branch Out alternative break program has been named program of the year in Break Away’s 2011 National Alternative Break Awards.

“This award is a symbol of the efforts of thousands of students that have participated in W&M alternative breaks over the past decade,” said Drew Stelljes, director of community engagement in the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship. “Those that came before and are now successful alumni in their chosen field helped build the foundation that Branch Out is built on.”

A W&M student dances with a child at Grace Children's Hospital during the recent W&M Haiti Compact alternative break.Break Away is a non-profit organization that helps more than 300 colleges and universities across the country promote alternative breaks. Recently the organization also named William & Mary among its top ten lists of schools with the most alternative break trips, schools with the most participants and schools with the highest percentage of participants.

The William & Mary Branch Out alternative breaks program offers students opportunities to learn about social justice issues while serving communities at regional, national and international destinations. During the recent academic year, Branch Out hosted 30 trips with 371 participants. The trips included destinations as close as Richmond and as far as Ghana.

“The attention to the quality components of an effective alternative break have unleashed the intellectual insight of our students,” said Stelljes. “To be recognized as the premier university in the country for active and engaged citizenship is both humbling and worthy of celebration.”

Representatives from the Branch Out program will receive the award in August at a gala celebrating Break Away’s 20th anniversary.

Katherine Eklund ’11, one of the student directors for Branch Out, said, “It is an incredible honor to be selected as this year's top alternative break program since there are so many fantastic programs at other schools. I am proud that Branch Out has become a part of the national alternative break movement.”

She added, “It demonstrates once again that William & Mary is a leader in providing excellent and diverse opportunities for students to engage with communities throughout the world and to develop a long-term commitment to working for social justice. “

Melody Porter, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship, said that one of the most meaningful things about receiving the award is that “it recognizes the power of student leadership.”

“This past year, our six student directors really worked hard together to really make sure that our program was always achieving our mission and vision, which is about social justice,” she said. “And that’s not always easy to do. Yes, we can run fun trips, we can do trips that make people feel accomplished but are we really contributing to social justice? And I think that’s what this group of students was really focused on and committed to.”

Thanks to the hard work of dedicated students and staff, the Branch Out program has grown and become more focused each year. This year, student leaders added a few new aspects to the program, including training for site leaders on issues of privilege and justice, outreach to different student groups and classes, and the integration of trips with the same themes.

“We had trips in each branch focused on the same issue and we connected them to each other, which was part of the vision all along,” said Porter. “For instance, this year, we had a regional, national and international trip focused on HIV education and outreach.”

Branch Out’s leaders were delighted to hear about winning the award, but they know that now the proverbial bar has been set.

“I think this has just called us to accountability on this,” said Porter. “We can’t goof off. We’ve got to keep going from here. We would anyway, but this is really inspirational and the gratification of it gives us energy to move forward.”

Eklund echoed that sentiment said she hopes the award is a catalyst for the program to grow its partnerships with people and organizations around the world.

“Branch Out has succeeded because of the hard work, insight, and passion of community partners and students from many backgrounds, experiences, and interest areas,” she said. “I think it’s the ability to bring these individuals together and give them a platform to share resources, put ideas into action, and develop plans for continued engagement that makes Branch Out successful.”