UNLV students planning Alternative Spring Break

There are stereotypes, and then there are the people who prove them wrong.

People like José Garcia or Sarah Teferi, for example.

Garcia and Teferi could each spend this week on the beach, or on the couch, like thousands of other college students will on their spring break.

But they won’t be doing that.

“Spring break is often about partying or hanging out at home and not doing anything,” said Garcia, 19, a UNLV sophomore studying history. “But I really believe in learning outside the classroom.”

Garcia is this year’s Alternative Spring Break coordinator at UNLV. Every year, students from colleges across the nation use the week off to do volunteer work.

The idea’s been around for decades, but Donovan Nichols, UNLV’s program coordinator for services, said it’s been gaining popularity lately.

“The idea is to give students an opportunity to do something different than your normal college spring break,” Nichols said.

This year, 27 students and three staff members are driving to San Francisco, where they will volunteer with HIV/AIDS groups and learn about the gay and lesbian community.

Teferi, 18, a freshman who hasn’t declared a major yet, said this is going to be a big learning experience for her. She has no experience at all in those areas.

“I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Teferi, who went to Green Valley High School and is attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on a Millennium Scholarship.

“How many summers have I spent just vegging out on the couch?” she said. “It’s more fun for me, doing something like this.”

Nichols said students will meet with several different organizations over the course of their week in San Francisco.

The point is not just to volunteer. It’s to learn about something in a hands-on way they’d never get to do in a classroom.

“There’s definitely an interest from students to take trips like this,” he said, noting that they had 58 applicants but couldn’t accept them all because of space limits.

In years past, UNLV students have traveled to New Orleans, the Navajo Nation and, last year, to Fresno, Calif., where they worked with the rural poor on health care issues.

Garcia, who was a freshman last year, took that trip.

“It was really powerful for me,” he said.

That’s why he volunteered to coordinate this year’s trip.

Garcia said he was out of his comfort zone working with immigrant agricultural workers on last year’s trip, but in a good way. It taught him about the experiences of other people.

He said he thinks all students could benefit from a similar experience.

Nichols said that’s the whole point. A university is not a trade school. A university is supposed to teach someone not just skills and academics, but also make them a well-rounded person who, in theory at least, has something valuable to contribute to a society.

“It’s about becoming the whole person,” he said. “How you’re benefiting society as a whole.”

Teferi, the freshman from Green Valley, already volunteers with the homeless here in Las Vegas. She’s thinking of getting into the nonprofit field as a career after she graduates.

She heard about the spring break trip from Garcia in a women’s studies class, and she jumped at the chance to participate.

Teferi wants more out of college than just a degree. She wants to experience something that she’ll be able to bring home and tell everyone else about.

Then they’ll experience it too, in a way.

She thinks the same thing will happen with the other 29 people who are going on the trip. They’ll all bring home what they learned, and they’ll all teach someone else about it.

“It’s only 30 of us, but we don’t want the learning to stop with just us. We want it to spread throughout the community.”

Contact reporter Richard Lake at or 702-383-0307.

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