spring break and service:

“Reach Out is like a ‘meta’ aid program,” Josh Batson ’08 said. “You pay to fly to a foreign country and learn about people who do actual work. It’s like if in Habitat for Humanity, you had lunch with carpenters instead of building a house. It seems like paying to take a vacation instead of doing meaningful community service of any form. If I’m going to take a vacation, I’m going to take it where I want to and on my own schedule.”

Yale’s flagship international relief organization, Reach Out offers students the chance to travel to exotic locales during spring break while ultimately performing some type of humanitarian work. Next week, for instance, 58 Yale students will descend upon Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Jamaica to participate in the student-organized Reach Out trips. The trips purport to synthesize academic research — recording oral histories — with service work, from building schools to digging ditches. And while the trips are designed for community service, most student participants say they find a way to incorporate elements of the paradigmatic MTV spring break.

This concern is a central critique of Reach Out, a student-run organization of spring and summer relief trips, and its mission, which promises “to build personal relationships between Yale students and people from other countries.” With little experience in actual development work, can students — trained in the activism of Cross Campus protests and Dwight Hall benefit dinners — transform their interest in poverty into genuine results? Or are such trips, which often cost upwards of $1,000, just a feel-good, resume-padding alternative to more traditional spring breaks?

“I wouldn’t say it was like being on vacation because we definitely had work to do everyday,” said Abigail Keene-Babcock ’07, Reach Out’s spring break coordinator. “But it’s not always hard-core. We had a good time.”

Amanda Turner ’07 is leading a trip to Guatemala this year that will follow up on the work she and others did last year. During the first week of spring break, the Yalies will travel around Guatemala to study the country’s schools and ecosystems. After that, they will return to a day care center, El Buen Samaritano — the Good Samaritan — to work with the children and to build a house for a family who lost their home in flooding last year.

“We’re going to be tutoring and just playing with the kids, organizing games, helping them brush their teeth and wash their hair,” she said.

The lack of infrastructure means sanitation has to be a large part of the school’s curriculum, since, Turner said, children do not always know not to put dirty hands in their mouth and eyes.

Over two weeks at EBS last year, Turner said, she forged a special bond with one girl reputed to be the most troublesome student in the class. When it came time for Turner to come back to chilly New Haven, the girl cried.

“How could you only come for two weeks?” the child asked.

Reach Out participants hope to be role models for the children they meet, Turner said, but she acknowledged that in two weeks, visitors may get more out of the trip than those they are serving.

“In all honesty, it’s probably more beneficial for the people who are going on the trip than the people you help,” Turner said.

Some Reach Out-bound Yalies — many of whom are visiting a developing country for the first time — use the trips to put a face on their coursework in international development, Keene-Babcock said. Turner said she only realized the magnitude of inequities in Guatemala’s education system because her group traveled around the island to visit schools.

But Jason Blau ’08, who visited Mexico with Reach Out last March, said he thinks the trips provide an on-the-ground knowledge of development that is important for Yalies as “citizens of the world.” Participants probably do not have construction expertise, Blau observed, but they can have conversations that lead to real progress later.

“I don’t know how to build a house,” Blau said. “We can go dig a ditch somewhere, but it’s not the best use of our time. I’ve really taken what I’ve learned to activism and different things I do on campus.”

The trips rely on considerable assistance from staff members at the NGOs the Reach Out trips visit. This year, EBS was booked for the first week of Yale’s spring break, so its director coordinated a week of trips for the Reach Out volunteers to other service organizations as well as tourist destinations.

“Us being there is somewhat of a burden on the organizations we visit,” Keene-Babcock admitted.

Two weeks is not always enough time to finish the ambitious projects that Reach Out leaders plan for their groups. On the Dominican Republic trip last year, trip participants began construction on a community center. But the project sat unfinished for a year after the departure of the Yalies, who were unable to complete the project in two weeks.

Cynthia So ’07, who is leading the trip to the Dominican Republic for the second year in a row, said this year’s group will try to complete the building — if they have enough money and materials to do so.

The short time frame of the program and its focus on learning instead of action turned off some students who were originally interested in Reach Out. Sarah Yin ’08 said she went to an organizational meeting for Reach Out because she was interested in doing community service abroad, but found the group did not have enough time to do meaningful service work.

“I did not sit through the whole meeting because I realized that it was just a program about paying a lot of money to go around with a tour group and maybe attend a few talks about human rights or AIDS,” Yin said. “It was clearly more about going around and touring.”

On a Reach Out trip to Rio de Janiero in 2004, the group dynamic grew tense at times from the pressure of a travel schedule that combined service learning and the Rio nightlife, Tracy Paul ’06 said. She likened it to “Rio Real World,” but added that everyone ended up having a good time.

“We partied,” she said. “We were out on spring break, and then we went to work the next morning.”

Jamaica trip leader Carolyn Redley ’07 said she thinks local residents are excited to see that American students care enough about development to abandon a “Girls Gone Wild” ethos in favor of service in developing countries.

Reach Out leaders said the program mostly attracts students like Blau, who have a personal interest in development, regardless of their academic concentration.

“I’m not sure what else I would have done with my spring break that would have taught me more about what I’m actually interested in at Yale,” Blau said. “That just seems really invaluable to me.”

Undergraduate Career Services Director Philip Jones said Reach Out trips might bolster a student’s resume when applying to a job or graduate school if it is part of a consistent record of community service.

“Employers are interested in all kinds of student experiences, less from the actual nature of the activity per se, as much as for what it teaches the student about him or herself and what skills may be developed,” Jones said. “If a Reach Out trip fits into a series of community-focused activities, and students can articulate the value of the learning that has taken place, then it may be regarded as an asset.”

Redley, who is considering working for an international NGO or a service program like Teach for America after graduation, said she thinks law schools and public service-sector jobs look at community service. But she thinks students do not go on Reach Out just for the resume boost, since there are numerous service opportunities in New Haven that do not require hundreds of dollars to participate.

“Reach Out is just one of the many ways on campus to do that,” she said.

And for their community service, these Yalies are rewarded with reels of film for Sudler-funded exhibits in residential college dining halls, scrapbook-worthy memories and anecdotes to use on the next round of seminar applications.

“It’s fun,” Blau said. “You can’t discount that.”

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