Alternative Break

A Florida beach for Spring Break is so yesterday.

CMU’s award-winning Alternative Breaks program sends students all over the country and world, volunteering for social justice issues including animal endangerment, natural disaster relief, suicide prevention, and hunger and homelessness.

Alternative Breaks has been ranked among the top five such programs in the nation by Break Away, a national nonprofit organization that supports the development of university alternative break programs.

As part of an annual national survey, CMU’s program ranked fifth for most trips coordinated by a school and fourth for the number of students participating in the trips.

The program organizes approximately 40 trips throughout the academic calendar with more than 400 students, says Shawna Ross, director of the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center.

“It’s really important for students to think about who they are as active citizens,” Ross says. “They’re learning in the classroom, but as they think about developing their leadership and citizenship skills, experiences with Alternative Breaks can help enhance the education they’re getting at the university.”

Students spend up to a week over the holidays, spring break and select weekends serving in communities in need.

“You learn a lot about yourself,” says Rockford senior Shannon Schmutz, who spent her holiday break in Urabamba, Peru, with a group of 10 CMU students working with children in schools and participating in reforestation. “College is about learning who you are and what you want to do with your life. Alternative Breaks really teaches you about what you want to do in the future, which strengthens your education.”

“It can show you what you're passionate about,” she says.

The program is based on volunteer service projects, so students must pay for their own travel. Campus programming funds, and a grant from CMU President George E. Ross that assists those in financial need, helps alleviate some of the costs for interested students.

The program is so popular it typically has a wait list of more than 150 students.

When they come back, they share the excitement.

“Students who have been involved share their experiences and what they’ve learned around campus,” Ross says. “They share their stories of how Alternative Breaks has changed who they are as a person, which has been our biggest recruitment tool.”

Greenville senior Kali Remelts traveled to New Orleans with a group of 12 CMU students over the holiday break to work with the St. Bernard Project on rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Isaac.

“I walk away with more than what I'm giving,” she says.

“Alternative Breaks is full of a really close group of people,” Remelts says. “Everyone is so caring and sincere. I can honestly say the students on my team will be my friends for a very long time.”

Senior Kaite Young-Kendall of Muskegon spent the holiday break in Austin, Texas, working in animal rescue at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary. The experience strengthened her communication skills, she says. The students’ passion, she adds, makes the program unique.

“It’s so incredible that I can come to this institution where I can meet so many different people from all walks of life, and we can create something together,” Young-Kendall says. “That’s truly special.”

For more information on Alternative Breaks, visit