Skip to main content

Alternative Student Breaks at Northwestern Turns 20

NU students, past and present, reflect on two decades of trips that “change lives”

  • NU grad, staffer recalls organizing the first ASB trip in 1995
  • Students crave purpose even in their time off, aim to make a difference
  • Service learning trips give students a chance to give back

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Twenty years ago this week, a bunch of Northwestern University undergrads jumped into a van to travel cross-country for spring break, and a tradition was born.

They were not bound for the sun and surf of some far-flung beach, but rather a broken down mining town in Appalachia.

Alternative Student Breaks at Northwestern (ASB) turned 20 this year. That’s 20 years of hands-on, real-world learning that many students -- both past and present -- say showed them they could make a difference and put them on a path of self-discovery. 

Over the last two decades the idea of ASB has been borrowed and incorporated by groups at Northwestern, making for a broad variety of programs catering to students with specific needs and interests. 

This year, for the first time, Northwestern University’s International Office is leading an alternative spring break trip to Memphis geared toward graduate students.

Habitat for Humanity offers more options in the way of service learning.  

Students are finding new ways to change their own lives -- and those of others -- for the better.

“That was the genesis,” said Rob Donahue, who, as a sophomore organized NU’s first alternative spring break. “I was compelled to break out of the ‘bubble,’ and I learned I was not the only one who felt that.”

The following year, in 1996, the newly formed ASB group drove down to Greensboro, Alabama, in the wake of a rash of racially motivated arsons. Donahue said the students learned in news reports about a “mysterious” fire that destroyed Rising Star Baptist Church, the ninth suspected church arson targeting black congregations in Alabama that year.

“There was this phenomenon going on where there was this huge spate of arsons happening all across the South,” Donahue said. “Here was a pressing issue in our country, and students wanted to do something about it.”

They weren’t alone. People and organizations from all over the country wanted to help. The Clinton Administration formed a task force to investigate the arsons and document the response.

Donahue appears in the first of several reports issued by the task force.

“Nothing prepared us for what we were going to experience,” Donahue said, according to the report. “The local community was so welcoming. The preacher even wondered whether the first guy who lit the first match understood how many people he brought together.”

To satisfy students’ appetite, the NU chapter of ASB grew, offering more trip options to more participants in the years that followed.

With the oppressive Chicago winter still fresh in mind, tropical vacations have powerful allure this time of year. But a growing number of students are looking for more than a party or the perfect patch of sand. 

Northwestern grad Kathy Chan participated in several alternative break trips during her time at Northwestern.

“ASB was a life-changing experience for me,” said Chan, director of policy for Cook County Health & Hospitals System. “I thought I would go to medical school at the time and change the world that way. ASB opened my eyes to that fact that you don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer to have a positive and meaningful impact. There are many ways to be an instrument of change.”

Since its founding, ASB estimates that approximately 5,000 Northwestern students have participated in service trips to sites ranging from Native American Reservations in the West to Appalachian sites in the South as well as international projects in places like Honduras.  

Last year, between pre-orientation, winter break and spring break, ASB sponsored 22 programs at sites in 17 different states.  

Next week, a group of Northwestern ASB students will volunteer at Mission: Wolf, a sanctuary in Westcliffe, Colorado, for wolves and wolf-dog crosses born in captivity.

Carrie Langhauser, one of two current ASB program directors, will be among them.

ASB has taken Langhauser all over the country. She has volunteered for a low-income daycare center in Kansas City, a sea turtle rehabilitative center on South Padre Island, a foster home in Nashville, a high school for teen mothers in Denver and more.

“I love Northwestern, but I think ASB has given me a chance to take all of the knowledge I have gotten in the classroom setting and see what it means in the real world and how we can engage with real people,” Langhauser said. “ASB changed my life. I think it has been a life-changing experience for a lot of students.”

Editor's Picks

Back to top