UNIVERSITY of Miami student Amit Chokski temporarily put aside his medical school texts to do it. University of Vermont Kristin Meyer left her criminology studies to try it.
Mr. Chokski and Ms. Meyer are among the rapidly growing ranks of college students forgoing the sandy beaches, keg parties, and suntan contests for what's being dubbed the "alternative spring break."
Instead they're helping feed the homeless in inner cities, visiting AIDS victims, and building homes on native American reservations.
The popularity of this trend has challenged the notion that "Generation Xers" are self-involved and immune to social concerns. "This is a generation with social commitments," says Art Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.
Mr. Levine supervised interviews with more than 9,000 college students in 1993. Despite such national events and problems as the Challenger explosion, concern over sexually transmitted disease, the Rodney King beating, and widespread corporate downsizing, this generation is positive and eager to make the world a better place, Levine says. "If anything, I call these youngsters a generation torn between doing well and doing good."
Meyer, a sociology major, spent a week with a Detroit inner-city program called "Save Our Sons and Daughters," founded by a parent whose son was murdered. Meyer joined "peace activists" who trained students in how to resolve conflicts without violence. She returned to Burlington, Vt., a changed person, she says.
"I asked a little boy, 'Did you ever think about peace?' 'No.' 'Did you ever think about violence?' 'Yes.' I asked him why he didn't think about peace. He said no one ever asked him to think about it. I was able to personalize what these kids grow up with every day," she says. "It was really hard to leave."
Chokski joined 12 other University of Miami medical students who kicked in $100 apiece to work in a poor Memphis community performing health-care checks, painting walls, and giving food to the homeless .
"Before we started working, the pastor showed us the impoverished area: low class housing, a crack house. That affected me strongly. It definitely gave me a perspective about what certain people have to do to get from Day 1 to Day 2."
Chokski and his group attracted local television coverage, which drew more volunteers to the Brinkley Heights Baptist Church, which hosted the group. "They weren't here to party or have fun. They came to serve other people," says associate pastor Sam Wilson of the students. "It was very much a blessing."
Many of the spring-break programs are coordinated through Break Away, a national effort that began at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1991. Co-founder Michael Magevney, then a Vanderbilt student, had spent a traditional sun and surf spring break in South Padre Island, Texas. "I came back more exhausted than when I went," he says.
Today Break Away, which began with 3,000 students, now draws 15,000 students from 350 colleges across the country.
The most popular destinations this year are the Appalachia regions because of their warm weather and abundance of well-organized nonprofit agencies. Recently, programs dealing with AIDS and domestic violence have also attracted more students.
Although most college spring breaks wrap up next week, Break Away has broadened the program to include long weekends, winter breaks, and summer vacations. "The students and the communities are doing fantastic work. They are making a difference," Mr. Magevney says.
They are also seeing slices of unfamiliar lives, says Chokski. "We live a privileged life. I learned so much about what is going on." Another thing, he added: "I had a great time."