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Despite pandemic, W&M's Branch Out makes a connection and a difference

  • A graphic that says 2020-2021 branch out site leaders and shows Zoom screens with multiple faces
    Branch Out:  In Branch Out alternative breaks, students — usually no more than a dozen per group — work primarily with non-profit organizations that serve the community. Each focuses on a particular social topic. This fall, the topics were Food Security & Heath: Societal Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Race & Reconciliation: Anti-Racist Education and Action.  Courtesy image
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By design, William & Mary’s Branch Out Alternative Breaks program goes on the road to help community-driven organizations. Like Moveable Feast, which delivers meals to those with chronic illnesses in Baltimore. Like the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, which aims to improve the quality of life in southern West Virginia.

COVID-19 changed that approach and left Branch Out with some pressing questions. How could the program continue making a difference from hundreds of miles away? How could the students feel personally invested through WiFi and a laptop?

It was no easy fix, but the students and Office of Community Engagement made it work. Although in a remote setting during September and October, one group was able to raise $1,000 for Moveable Feast. Another was able to discuss systemic racism and anti-racist work with the Lemon Project on campus.

It required flexibility and patience.

“One of the first issues was that a lot of the community partners we work with are non-profits who also are facing a lot of challenges right now,” said Madeline Brown ’21, a site coordinator and member of the executive board. “Trying to find service opportunities online also is its own challenge.

“I was concerned about it over the summer and at the beginning of the (fall) semester. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to pull it off, but I think it was a lot more successful than we expected. Hopefully, it’ll continue to be successful into the winter and spring and as long as we have to do host our programs virtually.”

In Branch Out alternative breaks, students — usually no more than a dozen per group — work primarily with non-profit organizations that serve the community. Each focuses on a particular social topic. This fall, the topics were Food Security & Heath: Societal Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Race & Reconciliation: Anti-Racist Education and Action.

The personal connection is always preferable. But Alex Vanik ’21, a co-site leader (with Emma Sharrett) for the Food Security & Health team, knew there would be a way to make things work from four hours away.

“What was particularly helpful was that we had the volunteer coordinator from Moveable Feast talk to participants pretty early on about food security and health,” Vanik said. “We had a great conversation, and we were inspired to do the work by talking with her.

“Through their online site, we wrote kindness cards and gave some positive energy to people who are struggling. Those notes will go out with the food in a way that doesn’t replace our in-person interaction with the community but gives us a way to put ourselves in the same mindset.”

Most important, Moveable Feast gave the 12-member group (including site leaders) a fundraising project. The group ended up raising $1,000, $500 of which Branch Out as an organization matched.

Most likely, had this year’s program not been remote, there wouldn’t have been a fundraising project.

“I certainly don’t think it would have been something that would have been part of the agenda,” Vanik said. “In the years I’ve been with Branch Out so far, it’s never been something that I’ve heard of anyone doing as part of their trip or their community partner.”

Meg Jones ’22 served as co-leader (with Caroline Donnelly ‘22) on the Race & Reconciliation team. The impacts of systemic racism and anti-racist work have long been a priority for her. After the events of last summer, in which several black people died at the hands of police, the issue became even larger.

“That was one of the reasons we decided to move forward on this topic because of how important an issue it is right now,” Jones said. “Obviously, it’s always been an issue, but the conversation has shifted the focus after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“It felt really important to be a part of, even if it was a small group of students. We put that topic front and center and helped other people learn more about. We also educated ourselves so their deaths won’t fade and will continue to be a motivation for change.”

The team also worked with All Together Williamsburg, which, as its name implies, stresses working together across racial and ethnic lines.

“Right now, we are in the process of planning how students can get involved with that group,” Jones said. “We’re still throwing ideas around, potentially all of us becoming members or training a student-advisory board for the organization.”

Melody Porter, director of the Office of Community Engagement, credits the group’s executive board, which consists of six students, with making the most of a challenging situation.

“They were really creative and willing to adapt over and over again as we’ve been developing these programs,” she said. “We actually selected them after lockdown began in March and we began planning for the fall as if it would be back to normal. But, as time went on, this group was like, ‘We should have a back-up plan and act as if we won’t be traveling in the fall.’

“The fact that they were able to think, ‘OK, if we don’t have a fall break, what if we did have people meet over the course of five weeks and still get a sense of investment in the issue?’ They kept the team building and made it possible for people to have a similar learning experience and still contribute something to the community.”

Alternative breaks for the winter also will be remote and are scheduled to take place a week before classes begin on Jan. 27. Topics will be Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces: LGBTQ+ Experiences on College Campuses, The Relationship Between William & Mary and African Americans: The Lemon Project, and the Intersectionality of Immigration: William & Mary Law’s Immigration Clinic.

Jones appreciates the chance to do these types of event — even if the conditions aren’t ideal.

“I really value Branch Out,” she said. “It has a really great mission. Doing it virtually, Caroline and I were still able to connect with people and get our point across. We had to be a little more creative and we worked hard for that to happen.

“We had new opportunities we might not have had if we weren’t virtual, like being able to speak to a lot of people from community organizations and professors at William & Mary. It was unique way to address things, and I think we made the most of it.”