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An Alternative Break

Forget Beaches and Sunscreen: For Alex Martin, Spring Break is a Chance to Serve

Ask junior Alex Martin about his recent spring break adventures and you won’t get an earful about beaches, road trips, or lazy afternoons with friends.

Instead, you’ll be given a thirty-minute crash course on the intricacies of the worldwide hunger crisis, with phrases like “paternalism,” “primary response verses long-term sustainability,” and “multilateral cooperation” peppered in the conversation. He can tell you, in brisk and confident language, the problems he’s studied in the global response to poverty and hunger around the world and he speaks like a seasoned diplomat on the failures and promises of some of the leading international food agencies.

Because, while many of his peers were taking advantage of spring break to relax with friends or head home to see family, Alex was listening to and learning from leaders on the frontlines of the hunger fight crisis during an Alternative Spring Break Trip to Rome, Italy. With a team of fellow NC State students, he met with staff at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Program and learned about international efforts to combat world hunger and promote sustainable development.

The Alternative Spring Break Program started more than a decade ago as an opportunity to engage students in community service projects while participating in guided reflection and service learning. As a Shelton-Caldwell Scholar, Alex was able to attend the trip with the help of the program’s annual enrichment stipends, which provide $2,000 for study abroad, internships, and research. 

Alex participated in a 2008 trip to Guatemala to live and work alongside local Mayan villagers in the Maya Women’s Craft Center and the St. Jude Roman Catholic School. Each day, students performed intensive physical work, laying sidewalks or tearing down damaged walls. It was a stark contrast to the 2009 trip to Rome, where students divided their time between meetings with officials at international agencies and nightly volunteer hours at a local food kitchen.

For Alex, however, the trip to Rome was a rare opportunity to put down his textbooks and learn from the people and the organizations at the core of international development, a topic he’s explored in depth through an independent study and classes in international development and the world economy.

“I was floored that the people we met with were so frank with us,” he says. In each meeting with officials, the students were able to ask questions that they had researched in advance, probing the officials about the state of the world hunger crisis and international efforts to curb food shortages. Alex says the officials were open and honest, admitting shortfalls in the international response but detailing the evolution of international aid.

Before traveling to Rome, Alex says he was almost convinced that international relief efforts were doing little to alleviate the problems. “I kept thinking, ‘I know more about development than they do. They don’t get it at al.’” In Rome, however, he was able to explore the depth of the problem, hearing from officials about the complexity of international response and structural changes.

”Once I got there,” Alex says, “I realized they were engaging in an effort to fix the problems.”

At a much more local level, the team also pitched in to help at a local food kitchen, delivering meals to patrons or helping to clean up after dinner ended. For Alex, it was an opportunity to sit down with people in the community and view Rome from their eyes. They shared stories of poverty and racism, and offered their perspective about local politics and social issues. The combination of hands-on service and policy debate was potent, Alex said.

Throughout the experience, the team engaged in group reflection, sharing stories for their day, reacting to interviews with officials, or brainstorming new questions to ask on the following day. As a former mentor at the Shelton Challenge, Alex was no stranger to the power of reflection to enhance and enrich the overall experience.

“Working with the Shelton Challenge helped me realize the utility that reflection can have. It helped me see that that’s where the real learning takes place,” Alex said. “[In Rome], reflection provided a really cool way to take it all in. You could learn from the things that you may have overlooked and that others may have picked up. The whole group learned together.”

Already, Alex has plans in place to travel again, this time he’ll be spending the fall semester studying abroad in Spain. He’s also considering an internship with the World Food Program next summer.

“Before this trip, I might not have even considered it,” he says. “And without the support of the Caldwell and the Shelton, I would never have been able to make the trip. That really made the difference.”

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