Marilyn McDow had planned to spend her spring break baking at the beach on South Padre Island in Texas.
Instead, she's standing in a chilly drizzle in New York at the edge of the pit where the World Trade Center once stood.
"When I heard about this trip the opportunity to work at ground zero I just knew it was something I couldn't say no to," says the student from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. "It was an opportunity to really help out."
Ms. McDow and three other Oklahoman students arrived in New York on Monday for a week of work and talk about terrorism with students from Pace University, which sits a mere four blocks from ground zero.
They're part of a larger phenomenon, called the "alternative spring break" movement, which two students at Vanderbilt University started over a decade ago. It's grown from a handful of earnest do-gooders to an estimated 30,000 students each year who now forgo the traditional "fun week in the sun" for a more substantive experience from building homes for the needy, to trimming the Appalachian Trail, to dishing out meals at ground zero.
The goal is not only to provide direct service to people in need, but also to plant the seeds for a lifetime of community involvement.
"We want to do more than just offer a one-week volunteer vacation," says Dan McCabe, executive director of Break Away: the Alternative Break Connection in Tallahassee, Fla. "We want to really inspire lifelong active citizenship."
More than 60 colleges and universities have a formal relationship with Break Away. It acts as a broker of sorts, providing student volunteers to more than 230 social-service groups around the country. The students are required to prepare for months, sometimes as long as a year, to learn about the communities in which they'll work and the specific needs of the people they serve.
Break Away sponsors about 5,000 students each year, but the example they've set has inspired the tens of thousands of others who do their own mission work.
Indeed, the Oklahoma and Pace students who are working together this week organized the trip on their own at a student-government conference in October, while Pace was still reeling from the attacks. The university's World Trade Institute had been on 55th floor of the trade center. Police and rescue workers turned its main building, a few blocks away, into a triage center.
A total of 40 students and alumni were killed. The entire campus was traumatized.
"We were discussing terrorism, and everyone wanted to come to help us out," says Nancy Owen, the Pace student who coordinated the trip. "Because they had the bombing in Oklahoma City some years ago, we thought it would be meaningful for them to come here, share their experiences, and try to come up with solutions."
More than anything, the students from Oklahoma and Pace believe they share a shattered sense of security. Pace freshman Anthony Reinhart, who wanted to learn how the Oklahoma students coped in the aftermath, was getting ready for class when the first plane hit the trade center. After the first tower crumbled to the ground, he raced out onto the street and amazingly ran into his father, who had fled his job on Wall Street. The two were able to leave Manhattan together.
But Mr. Reinhart says he still thinks about the attack every day, particularly when he hears sirens.
"My window looks out over the Brooklyn Bridge. Every time I see five or more cop cars coming over, I wonder if there's been another attack," he says.
As they walk around the perimeter of ground zero on their first day, Kate Thrift of the University of Central Oklahoma assures him the anxiety will abate that "everything is going to be OK," even as it's changed forever.
She remembers vividly the fear she felt in 1995 after walking into her sixth-grade English class and getting the news about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. She had a young friend in the day-care center across the street at the YMCA who was injured by the flying debris. She's still disturbed by the memory of the little girl covered with cuts and bruises.
But as Ms. Thrift and the others walk back from their first visit to ground zero, she is even more rattled. "It's everything like the Oklahoma City bombing, but a million times more," she says. "I feel about twice as sad as I did when I first came over here."
But like the other students, she's determined to turn those feelings into productive energy as they start their work at a relief center. There, dozens of people affected by the attacks are still coming for help finding new homes and jobs.
"This allows us to reach out and really help," says Hilarie Fite, a sophomore from Western Oklahoma State College in Altus. "You also learn a lot, and doing it creates a better person inside."