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Globe and Mail Wed. Feb. 15, 2006 Page A7

Out of classes, into the 'real world'

Instead of partying this spring break, more university students are involved in community service here and overseas

CAROLINE ALPHONSO

EDUCATION REPORTER

Forget about partying in Florida -- or even sleeping in. Alison Chiang is spending her university spring break waking up early to do aerobics with a group of inner-city youngsters.

"I think we all have a bit of trouble getting out of bed this week," Ms. Chiang said. "But I just feel the end results can be so much better than if I were to stay home for an extra four hours of sleep."

The 22-year-old University of British Columbia student is among hundreds across the country who are forgoing their beach vacation or a relaxing spring break week to take part in a new Canada-wide university movement called Community Service Learning.

The initiative, adopted by a handful of Canadian universities and copied from the United States, combines voluntary community service with classroom learning. Students volunteer in local or overseas projects and then return to a classroom setting to engage in group discussions, listen to speakers or write analytical papers.

"It's not at all meant to be a 'sit on the beach for the week' thing. It's a very busy time. They go from morning to night," said Marla Gaudet, who manages the program at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

About 40 students from her university are heading to Cuba, Grenada, Mexico and Guatemala toward the end of the month. Twenty-five University of Western Ontario students will teach at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. At the University of Guelph in Ontario, 42 pupils are heading to Mississippi to assist in the hurricane Katrina relief efforts. And at UBC, 300 students are working in inner-city Vancouver schools this week.

(Spring break, also referred to as reading week, varies among universities. Some have it this week, while others give students the week off later in the month.)

Ms. Chiang, along with about 30 UBC students, are at Tillicum School teaching young children about healthy living. The inner-city school has a large number of English-as-a-second-language students and a significant native population.Yesterday, Ms. Chiang led a small group in an aerobic workout. As she was doing jumping jacks with the kids, her friends were vacationing in Cuba, Paris and Montreal. Others, she said, were sleeping in, watching movies and catching up on schoolwork.

Sure, she would like to do the same. But she said she gets pleasure from contributing something back to the community.

That's precisely what Margo Fryer likes hearing.

Dr. Fryer, who runs the program at UBC and is also president of the newly formed Canadian Alliance of Community Service Learning, said the program's goal is to allow students to make a connection between what they're learning in the ivory tower and what is happening in the so-called real world. Interest has grown: only 20 UBC students volunteered four years ago, compared with 300 today.

Students work with inner-city kids on literacy activities or help in community gardens. A group of science students are taking youngsters on a trip to a university science lab.

Some students are using their volunteer work to write papers and make presentations when they return to classes. Dr. Fryer wants more professors to adapt their curricula to include community-service projects. "For students who grew up in middle-class, stable environments, this is an opportunity to meet people they wouldn't otherwise meet," Dr. Fryer said.

Ms. Gaudet echoes this sentiment. Students in her group visit international sites. They will work at a co-op farm in Cuba, pulling weeds and planting crops. In Mexico, they will work with Habitat for Humanity to build homes. And in Guatemala, they will help sort coffee and visit local schools.

"We get students who have never been on an airplane and we get students who have hitchhiked around the world. When we ask, 'Why do you want to go on this?' they talk about the ability to meet local people and talk about local issues," Ms. Gaudet said.

Lukasz Aleksandrowicz, 21, has vacationed in the southeastern United States, but he believes his spring break experience will be very different. The University of Guelph student is giving up a snowboarding trip to help Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi.

He and about 40 students leave on Saturday. His days will be spent touring the area, learning about U.S. civil rights, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and working in local schools. At night, he will sleep on a church floor.

Mr. Aleksandrowicz, a third-year biomedical student, is hoping the experience will help him with future career plans. He hopes to enter medical school. "This is a good way to get my foot in there, and to see how emergency-response situations really work," he said.

"This is kind of fun for me as well. Not in a leisurely sense, but I get pleasure out of helping people and studying these social issues."

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For information on these programs and other intiatives in Canada, please visit our links to Canadian campuses