If you’ve ever suffered through one of MTV’s raucous spring break specials, you might conclude that all college students make a yearly pilgrimage to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where they jiggle around in too-small bikinis and lick whipped cream off of strangers’ bodies.
For throngs of young adults, spring break has become regrettably synonymous with sun, José Cuervo and the occasional sexually transmitted disease. Many students at USC, however, are breaking the stereotypical mold of a college spring break. They are investing in their own lives and the lives of others by volunteering during their vacation.
Whether traveling abroad to provide clean water for families in Honduras or simply lending some time to a local beach cleanup, USC students who volunteer have the unique opportunity to gain personal, professional and physical benefits that will last far beyond the end of the week.
College students should capitalize on volunteer positions, as volunteers often feel an increased sense of purpose after making a positive impact on the community they have served. Alyssa Odle, a senior majoring in public relations, will return to Australia this spring break for a second trip as a missionary with Campus Crusade for Christ.
Although the group’s main objective is to share the message of Christian faith and benefit the lives of college students in Melbourne, Australia, volunteers often find that their own lives are transformed in the process. These students agreed that serving in Australia gives them an increased sense of purpose as well as joy in their lives.
“I will come back more deeply in love with God, with a stronger tie to Australia [and] with more motivation to serve missionally in the future,” Odle said. “I have the knowledge that I was instrumental in changing hearts and lives for eternity.”
In addition to the relatively intangible emotional benefits that volunteers achieve — such as a renewed work ethic and a sense of compassion — from supporting those in need, student workers can even use volunteer experiences to further their career goals.
A precisely chosen service project can also boost a résumé and develop skills that students will need on the job. For Matt Tan, a junior majoring in biological sciences, the time spent providing medicine and health education to villagers in Honduras during his 2009 spring break ignited his desire to gain a better understanding of the individuals he will someday treat.
“Part of being a good doctor is getting experience and learning about different cultures so that in the future I can relate to my patients,” said Tan, who is the co-vice president of USC’s Global Water Brigades and helped organize another trip to Honduras for this year’s spring break.
This year the student workers will introduce a sanitary drinking water system for a village of about 120 families. Students on the trip will also spend time with local leaders in an effort to encourage sustainability and healthy lifestyles in their own communities.
Some would-be volunteers argue that, although these community service projects are valuable and certainly admirable, spring break is reserved strictly for relaxation. They assert that all students need the time to clear their heads and should enjoy a week that is devoid of all responsibilities.
However, increasing amounts of medical research proves that volunteer work actually helps students relax and revitalize themselves for the final weeks of the semester.
Scientists from The Corporation for National and Community Service presented their findings in a report entitled “The Health Benefits of Volunteering,” indicating a relationship between community service and overall physical wellness.
Even three years after completing a significant volunteer project, those who served the community reported higher levels of happiness, self-esteem and a sense of control over their lives than non-volunteers. Other positive effects include evidence that volunteers experience lower rates of depression and live longer than their peers who do not volunteer, even when taking into account such factors as age, socioeconomic status and gender.
Overall, individuals who partake in volunteer projects can not only solve problems for communities in need but can also transform their own lives in the process. When making plans for spring break 2010, USC students would do well to commit their time and skills as a volunteer.
A diverse range of projects need support in Los Angeles as well as abroad. This need allows students to pursue their passions — whether they are leading a youth reading group or supporting individuals affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. Each of these contributions is inherently valuable, since the seemingly small efforts of a team of purposeful individuals can make an impact far greater than the sum of their parts.
Kelsey Clark is a sophomore majoring in print journalism.