Maureen O'Connell had no desire to go to the beach for spring break back in 1993 when she was a undergraduate at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Instead, she preferred working in the midst of poverty stricken Appalachia, near sulfur-choked water and trash-strewn streets. She liked the experience so much, she went twice as a student and again this year as an employee of the school. In March, she and 125 collegians from St. Joseph's went to Kentucky for Project Appalachia.
They are just a few of the students who are ditching spring break's party atmosphere in favor of more altruistic activities. Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., for example, is sending a group of students to Hobe Sound, Fla., this spring to remove nonnative plant species that have invaded the area. And 17 students from Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware just got back from helping with disaster relief on Viaquez, an island near Puerto Rico that was damaged by hurricane George.
In Kentucky, students from St. Joseph's worked with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that uses volunteers to build low-cost housing. They did everything from laying foundations to cleaning bathrooms.
"It's like a vacation to leave the tedious, incidental problems and meet people who are struggling with real problems," says Ms. O'Connell. "It's inspiring to see people who can appreciate what they have. They change you and the way you look at the world. I've never seen poor like I've seen there."
In addition to construction, students interacted with local people. A coal miner showed a video about mining and spoke of his family's dependence on it. A woman baked cornbread and fudge for them and invited them to look at her photo album.
Project Appalachia is designed to be an additional part of the liberal arts education, says Tom Maroon, coordinator of community services at St. Joseph's. Mr. Maroon says the trip has political, economic, and cultural dynamics to it, all of which enlighten students. The program has ballooned from 25 students in 1993 to 125 this year. "As opposed to traveling somewhere where there are scantily clad co-eds, this is something more meaningful," Maroon says.
Erin Fitzgerald, a junior, agrees. "You get more out of it than if you went to Cancun," she says. "It was really eye-opening. I couldn't believe this was part of our country."