More than 100 students spent their spring breaks on community service trips around the world this year, working on projects in areas ranging from New Orleans to Sierra Leone.

Several on-campus and independently organized groups sponsored service trips both within the United States and abroad in developing countries including Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Nicaragua. Students helped build homes and community centers, assisted with agricultural and irrigation projects, supervised elections, and participated in arts and cultural outreach in economically disadvantaged communities.

Tiffany Franke ’07 led a College Council for CARE trip to Sierra Leone, during which about 10 students traveled to three humanitarian project sites, visited towns, and learned about health and agricultural challenges facing Sierra Leoneans.

“We talked to people within CARE about the rights-based approach, which is unique to Sierra Leone,” Franke said. “The rights-based approach, which is a new buzzword in development, means advocating to people that they have a right to certain human needs, health and education. With that right also comes responsibility.”

Students on the CCC trip, which was the first student group affiliated with CARE –a global humanitarian organization — to visit Africa, raised $10,000 for the two-week trip and said they plan to continue to raise awareness of human rights problems in the Sierra Leone region by organizing future events and launching a Web site.

Yale Reach Out sent 61 Yalies abroad this spring on six separate trips around the globe, Reach Out spring break trip organizer Abigail Keene-Babcock ’07 said.

Cynthia So ’07, Reach Out Dominican Republic trip co-leader, said the 13 participants on her trip stayed with families in the community of Batey Libertad, working on the construction of a community center that will eventually include a library, computer lab, health clinic, and the first flush toilet in the area.

“We raised $2,000 such that this construction could continue, and worked alongside community members as we filled in the foundation with earth that had to be trucked in,” So said in an e-mail. “Our manual labor wasn’t always the most efficient or effective … [but] the fact that we were there, getting dirty alongside community members, playing games with the kids, telling stories and learning from one another was very important. If students learn now about the developing world and form a personal connection to it, I think they will be more inclined in the future to acting in ways that might bring about the changes that are necessary.”

Other Yalies who helped with construction efforts this month stayed closer to home.

Spencer Sherman ’08 and Yotam Barkai ’08 led a group of students to New Orleans to assist Habitat for Humanity with its rebuilding work in the wake of destruction from Hurricane Katrina.

“We decided spontaneously to go down to New Orleans,” Barkai said of his group’s independent effort. “We worked in St. Bernard’s parish gutting houses that are structurally intact but full of debris.”

Barkai said there was no substitute for the first-hand experience of seeing the disaster’s aftermath.

“You get an impression from the news and video, but it’s definitely not the same as being down there and hearing everybody’s stories,” Barkai said.

David Gershkoff ’07, president of the Yale International Relations Association, organized a week-long election-observing mission to El Salvador. Gershkoff said the YIRA group worked in partnership with the El Salvadorian Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad and learned about El Salvadorian political culture, serving as election observers in a highly contested race.

“We spent four days in a crash course about Salvadorian history and politics, traveling around the country and meeting with academics and politicians to learn about the relevant issues,” Gershkoff said. “Then we were split into a few different municipalities on election day, and each spent the day as accredited international election observers watching the setup, voting itself, ballot counting, transmission of results and takedown. Afterwards, we spent time monitoring at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s headquarters, watching the review of the votes, especially when the San Salvadorian mayoral election came down to a few dozen votes.”

Gershkoff said about 15 students participated in the YIRA trip.

Allison Pickens ’07, president of Reach Out — which also offers summer trips — described the group’s work as “educational,” combining hands-on service with academic preparation.

“Reach Out service-learning trips generally involve a unique combination of service and research that enables students to learn firsthand about the challenges to economic development,” Pickens said. “Reading preparatory academic packets, engaging in discussions with individuals ranging from professionals in the nonprofit and governmental sectors to AIDS victims in the country of destination, and seeing with their own eyes the economic adversity that plagues much of the world, students on Reach Out trips can learn more about development than they ever could in a classroom.”

Though many Yalies participating in service trips this month said they had positive experiences, some students who chose not to join the groups traveling abroad questioned the effectiveness of community service performed over spring break.

Sarah Yin ’08 said she attended a Reach Out organizational meeting, but was turned off by what she perceived as a lack of full focus on volunteer work.

“I didn’t like the way it was presented,” Yin said. “I thought … from the information session, it wasn’t as much of a volunteer experience as a travel experience.”

But Kevin Davis ’08, who went on Reach Out’s Guatemala trip this break, said he felt the experience was valuable because of the cultural exposure it provided him.

“Especially if you’ve never been to a third-world country before, to see it and work with it up-close and personal gives you a new perspective,” Davis said.

Reach Out Dominican Republic trip co-leader Tanya Martinez ’07 said she, So and at least three other Yalies will return to the Dominican Republic this summer to conduct research in Batey Libertad.