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Alternative break trips help students ‘branch out,’ become active citizens

{{youtube:medium:left|gInAstvBKUo, Branch Out: Toward active citizenry at W&M}}

Emily Wolfteich ’14 remembers the man with the “train-hopping bible” well. His book was crammed full of hand-written notes about train stations across the country – where to find food nearby, how to avoid police, where to jump onto the trains.

Wolfteich met him during an alternative break trip during her sophomore year at William & Mary. Her group had traveled to Philadelphia to work on labor rights issues but had ended up staying in a church with a homeless shelter in the basement. Although some of the students were uncomfortable with that initially, a dinner with the shelter’s residents – including the man with the “train-hopping bible” – helped the students understand the issue of homelessness in a way they never had before.

Those kinds of eye-opening experiences are a common occurrence during Branch Out alternative break trips at William & Mary, said Melody Porter, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement (OCE).

“Our students will talk about the effect that alternative breaks have on them as changing their lives, and whenever I ask them what does that mean, they say, ‘It changed the way that I look at the world, the way that I understand myself. I now know so much about this issue, and I want to do something about it for the rest of my life.’”

The Branch Out program, run by OCE, sponsors 28 trips a year in regional, national and international locations, ranging from Richmond, Va., to Tanzania. Each trip focuses on a social justice issue and operates in coordination with community partners.

“Branch Out alternative breaks’ vision is that we would create a community of active and educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice,” said Porter. “They are all student-led, and students work closely with community partners to develop projects that will build toward what the community has envisioned for themselves.”

Although many W&M students come into the College with volunteer experience and a desire to serve the community, the Branch Out program gives them the tools to take it a step further, said Porter. For instance, instead of just taking a trip to do some volunteer work in in South Carolina, a Branch Out trip would challenge students to look at the issue of affordable housing in South Carolina, become educated about that issue and then bring what they’ve learned back to Williamsburg to look at how that same issue is affecting the local community and how it can be addressed.

“We really focus on the education, the direct service and the reorientation,” said Wolfteich, who now serves as the student director for Branch Out regional. “You need to go through all of those steps. You need to educate yourself about the problems and the social justice issue you are working with. You need to go do something about it, and then you need to come back and say, ‘OK, where do I see this around me and how can I inspire other people to also do that?’”

Because education is such an important emphasis in Branch Out trips, many of the participants see a connection between what they are learning in W&M’s classrooms and what they are learning in the field.

“I think scholarship and what we study in class both give you background knowledge, but then it also builds your way of thinking critically about situations,” said Erin Faltermeier '15, who led a Branch Out trip to Gaston, N.C., during spring break.

“Branch Out is such a great organization,” she said, “because it really allows you to take what you’ve learned at William & Mary through your coursework and all of your interactions with fellow students and really apply it both in our community and going out to see how it affects other people and their communities … It really makes you understand that there is so much more to being an active citizen than just being aware and just service.”

As the students strive to live lives of active citizenship, it is often the people they’ve met on the Branch Out trips that continue to inspire them – people like the man with the train-hopping bible that Wolfteich and her fellow students met over dinner one night in Philadelphia.

“We do reflection as part of our trips, and during that, we got to talk about people we had talked to during that dinner,” said Wolfteich.

Seeing how, in the course of one evening, the trip’s participants “just by talking to someone, by seeing them as a person and by realizing that we are equal on so many other levels” went from being scared to understanding the root causes of homelessness is one of the reasons that Wolfteich has stayed involved in Branch Out.

“Now, I’m a student director so I can hope to inspire other people to do that,” she said.