Each January, small groups of students spend a week during winter break learning about a social issue in Maine. These Alternative Winter Breaks trips are proposed, planned, and led by student leaders. Other students apply to join the trips. The McKeen Center for the Common Good runs both the Alternative Winter Break and Alternative Spring Break programs.
Below are descriptions of this year’s three trips. Two groups stayed in Maine — one worked on the issue of homelessness, the other with immigration and refugee education. Another group traveled to Vietnam to learn about the lingering aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Homelessness In Our Back Yard in Portland, Maine
After returning to Bowdoin from last year’s Alternative Spring Break trip in Philadelphia, which focused on homeless and at-risk youth, Jhadha (pronounced Jayda) King ’20 and Praise Hall ’20 felt at loose ends. While it would have been easy to get distracted by the tumult of college life, they instead decided to continue working on the issue of homelessness and helping those affected by it.
“During that Philadelphia trip we were so inspired,” King said in an interview last week. “And with such a pressing issue of homelessness, which impacts people across the country everywhere, especially right in our community, it was kind of weird that the work just stopped once we got back from the trip.”
Hall added, “We were at the ‘what’s next?’ part, but there was no what’s next part. That was the end. So we were both like, we need to do more.”
So two first-years (they’re sophomores now) petitioned the McKeen Center to lead an alternative winter break trip this January. “We wanted to show people that this is an issue that is affecting your community and there is so much you can do here,” King said, from having a coffee with someone at The Gathering Place to volunteering at the local soup kitchen.
For both Hall and King, homelessness is not an abstract and distant social problem. When she was two, King lived with her mom and siblings in a car in her church’s parking lot. “My family has always been living in border-line poverty,” she said.
At the age of nine, Hall was living with her parents and six siblings in a van. Remarkably, even when she was sharing one cramped hotel room with her large family, she was attending elite private schools. For both Hall and King, school was an important part of their childhoods: their parents encouraged them to focus on their schoolwork no matter what else was happening in their lives.After their AWB trip was approved, Hall and King set about planning the trip. While the actual Alternative Winter Break trips are just one week, trip leaders create and lead a series of seminars for participants in the autumn months leading up to the program.
King and Hall taught seven seminars before their trip, covering a range of subjects from housing insecurity in Portland to the ethical implications of volunteering, the opioid crisis’s impact on homelessness, the homeless census, homelessness in rural areas, and other topics.
For the trip’s five days, they planned a “well-rounded itinerary” that looked at different facets of homelessness, arranging meetings with people working on the issue, including an affordable housing landlord and an advocate for homeless veterans. They also spent a few hours on the street in Portland one cold afternoon, handing out mittens, coats, socks, food, and water to people in need.
This last activity was an important one for Hall and King. “It was good for [the eight trip participants] to see the face of [homelessness] and confront their misconceptions, or realize these are the realities,” King said. “There were people that came up and asked for hand warmers, and I could see their burned fingers from their meth habit. And we saw people very much new to the country who couldn’t really speak English, and people with kids.”
The two trip leaders’ most important objectives were to educate and enlighten participants about homelessness, and also to reinforce the humanity of people who have no home. Hall noted that many people, especially those who live in cities, can become desensitized to the plight of struggling strangers. “You get numb if you see it so much,” she said. “I think for the students, this [trip] is a wake-up call, for them to say, ‘Wow I’ve been turning my back to an issue that is so important and means so much.”
King added that she and Hall were clear from the beginning that the trip participants would not act like saviors. [We told them], “you’re not going to save anyone’s life, you’re not going to change anyone’s life. You’re not going to sit there, give someone a candy bar and fix all their problems. [Instead] you’re going to walk away with a changed perspective. You’re going to look at someone on the street and you’re not going to ignore them.”
Immigrant & Refugee Education in Portland, ME
Eight students, two of them student leaders, spent the week learning about the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee communities in Portland. They visited school classrooms, housing authorities, nonprofits, and other groups helping the non-English population of Maine’s largest city.
“We met with some unbelievable educators,” said student leader Sara Caplan ’20, “and they shared with us the strife and barriers that the current education system presents to an incredibly diverse community of immigrant and refugee students.” She added that as an aspiring public school teacher, the trip further proved to her “the incredibly important role that teachers play in shaping all students.”
The second student leader, Nina Alvarado-Silverman ’19, said she welcomed the opportunity to gain some “real world” insight. “I take a lot of education classes and the trip has really helped to solidify a lot of the concepts we have discussed the classroom. There’s so much potential for further collaboration between Bowdoin students and these types of organizations.”
After volunteering with the Portland Housing Authority for a Martin Luther King Jr. event, the group attended a middle school classroom and got to sit and work with students from a variety of backgrounds. “There were twelve languages spoken in one social studies classroom alone!” observed Jenna Scott ’19. “I’ve learned so much this week about the support services that Portland offers for incoming students.”Paige O’Connor ’20 said it was eye-opening to see how a multilingual classroom operates. “This trip has been about putting names and faces to the theoretical discussions I’ve had in my education courses and to the statistics that dominate the political rhetoric of immigration and education reform.”
O’Connor added, “I’m so glad I was able to participate in this AWB, and I hope that trips like these encourage students to take action through the McKeen Center and beyond the gates of Bowdoin.”
Healing the Wounds of War, Hanoi, Vietnam
Each year, the McKeen Center typically oversees two Alternative Winter Break trips, both planned and led by student volunteers who focus on a social issue in Maine.This year, however, there was an extra dimension to the program as thirteen students—two of them student leaders Quyen Ha ’18 and Bao Ma ’18—along with Assistant Dean of First Year Students Khoa Khuong, headed quite a lot further afield for their AWB. They traveled halfway around the world to Hanoi, Vietnam, for their trip.
The aim was for participants to witness the enduring ramifications of the Vietnam War, particularly its continuing public health impacts and reconciliation efforts. Participants lived in and volunteered at a rehabilitation center that serves children and veterans affected by Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide that the U.S. deployed during the war.
The students shared a bit of their trip through social media.
Thank you everyone for following our Vietnam AWB #Bowdointakeover today! This trip has been a huge learning experience for us all. Being with the children, speaking with the veterans, and hearing about their perspectives on the Vietnam War has provided us with many new insights that we hope to share with the Bowdoin Community as we return. We are incredibly grateful for this opportunity and exposure to the wonderful culture and country of Vietnam.