STUDENTS USE BREAK TIME TO BUILD HOUSES

* Spring break has traditionally been a time when college students head for the coast and kick up their heels. Wild stories from places like Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., have focused on students drunkenly letting off steam and sometimes causing near riots.

But some students are opting for break activities that help build society, not test its boundaries. At least 20 students from Florida State University in Tallahassee will take a week of their break, beginning March 19, to travel to Miami and help repair and build homes. They're members of a Habitat for Humanity chapter on campus.

Up north, nine students from New England College in Henniker, N.H., will team up with two faculty members and head for Clarksdale, Miss., to take part in a Habitat project there. They plan to finish two houses and start another. A second group will spend their break at Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington, D.C., working with students and doing presentations on life in New Hampshire.

Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., also has a group heading south. They will go to Orlando, Fla., to work on a house-building project sponsored by Habitat International.

Halfway across the continent, the Rev. Richard Lewis, the campus minister at Wichita State University, will take a team of students to a New Mexico Indian reservation where they'll dig ditches, work in a medical center, and do other community work. Rev. Lewis sees a change for the better among students today, observing that they ``are getting more conscience. They are concerned more with being with people and doing work projects.''

In the upper Midwest, 35 students at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago are involved in their campus's Alternative Student Service Education Trust (ASSET) program, which lets students earn money to offset college expenses by doing community work. They get $7 to $9 an hour, versus the minimum wage offered by President Clinton's Summer of Service program. It's not purely charitable in motive, but Gautham Ramnath, an architecture graduate student who has participated for two years and will be building low-income housing in Michigan during this year's break, says it's a lot better than time-wasting alternatives.

``We've all done the Florida thing over the spring break and partied. Truth is, we're all partied out,'' he says.

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