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Stanford Report, April 3, 2002

Students forgo the beach, spend spring break volunteering, learning


Last week, as many of her fellow classmates were partying at some spring break getaway or maybe just lounging on their parents' couch watching others party on MTV, Stanford junior Molly Tanenbaum was running around a table of rambunctious fifth graders and helping them solve math problems as each one vied for her attention.

Although visibly exhausted from two hours of trying to keep up with Ms. Rodriguez's class at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, Tanenbaum wouldn't have traded places with any of her classmates.

"I like the beach," she admitted. "But I figure spring break is just a week -- I might as well be doing something more useful. And useful to myself."

Freshman Brendan O'Connor and junior Molly Tanenbaum scrubbed pots at the Ecumenical Hunger Program last week during their group's Alternative Spring Break trip to East Palo Alto. Photo: Steve Castillo

Tanenbaum was a group leader for "To Build a Dream: The Community of East Palo Alto," one of 15 trips offered this year through Stanford's Alternative Spring Break program. Each group committed their weeklong vacation to volunteering and learning about other communities. While some chose to do so in more familiar tourist destinations such as Yosemite, New York and Hawaii, Tanenbaum's group -- one of the smallest of the 15 -- chose what might be the least likely of vacation spots.

"It seemed like a really good thing," said freshman Brendan O'Connor, while scrubbing dried food off a banquet-sized pot at the Ecumenical Hunger Program. "The Bay Area is my new neighborhood, but all anyone ever tells you about East Palo Alto is 'It's dangerous. Don't go there.' There are a lot of misconceptions."

For the past quarter, crowding once a week into a tiny room at the Bridge Peer Counseling Center, the students had been discussing those misconceptions. They invited community activists to teach them, assigned readings and held discussion groups on subjects such as youth and education, gentrification and homelessness.

"I want you to understand my community so that we can both win," explained guest Gloria Flores-Garcia, assistant executive director of the health care advocacy group El Concilio of San Mateo County, during one such meeting. "You will grow up to be in positions where you will affect communities like where I live. We can both help each other."

Like others who signed up for Alternative Spring Break, O'Connor got involved after hearing about it from a friend. "He couldn't really explain why, but he said it was a turning point in his life," O'Connor explained of the friend, who took the "HIV/AIDS in San Francisco" trip.

Each year the Alternative Spring Break program -- a student organization that receives support from the Associated Students of Stanford University -- is offered through the Haas Center for Public Service. The trips aren't just about charity. The experiences of donating time and energy often "enhance classes in extremely unexpected ways," said another trip leader, junior Manish Kumar.

Activities of the East Palo Alto group included touring and attending a graduation at Free At Last, a substance abuse recovery center, and sitting in on a roundtable discussion at the Ecumenical Hunger Program, where people who have been affected by the program took turns telling their stories.

"There were some really powerful things that came out of that," Tanenbaum said. "I was in tears." One person whose story moved the group was an immigrant from China whose life had been completely disrupted by the Cultural Revolution.

"I read about this in Sociology 117A," Kumar said, referring to Stanford's China Under Mao course. "But then you come here and you hear someone talk about it. It was the last thing I expected to bring home.

"In school, when you look at marginalized communities, they are seen as people other than yourself. I thought the cool thing about this roundtable discussion was these people sitting beside you were normal, intelligent people who just had a lot of bad luck."

Fabienne Delpy, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Art and Art History, agreed.

"You can tell that these people have a lot to teach you," she said. "It's not just about bringing things to other people. It's recognizing that they can help you."

Before taking the Alternative Spring Break trip, it was easy to stay insulated on campus, members of the group agreed. As an urban studies major, senior Alejandro Huerta said he has lived next to a perfect laboratory for his major all four years that he has been a Stanford student, yet he "never really learned about it in real life. It was all about case studies."

At Cesar Chavez Academy last week, the lunch hour approached and the group prepared for the next stop on its busy schedule. "You're staying here, right?" the students pleaded with Huerta and his companions. "Why can't you guys stay? Pleeease?"

The group would return the following day, they reassured the disappointed students. Officially, that would be their last Alternative Spring Break meeting with the children. But unofficially, the relationship may continue. Last year after his Alternative Spring Break experience, Kumar returned to an elementary school the group had visited for the week and began working closely with one student.

"I think everyone definitely is inspired to somehow replicate their experiences of this week," he said.

For Delpy, that was one of her main motivations for enrolling in the program. For eight years before coming to Stanford, she lived in a similarly poor neighborhood in Paris -- but never got around to volunteering. Now that she wants to volunteer, she also wants to make sure she makes an informed decision. "I think it's very important to volunteer in the right place," she explained. "If you end up going to the wrong place, you can make things worse. I wanted to check out all the different places and see where I can come back and be most useful."

Delpy is considering returning to Free At Last.

"We knew from the start we weren't going to change things in a week," she said. "But there's been a lot of seeds planted."