Written by Eve Elliott ’21
For more than two decades, APPLES alternative breaks took the form of trips in laughter-filled white vans. They included hugs to community partners and group huddles for deep reflection activities. In early March 2020, a new cohort of student leaders excitedly began to plan alternative breaks for the 2020-2021 school year.
But, as the year went on, COVID-19 and social distancing rules left the students in doubt. The leaders for fall and winter breaks were especially worried. Could they build hallmark alternative break experiences with all these changes?
Alternative Fall Break Co-Chairs Laura Crook and Chetan Singalreddy hung on to hopes of in-person service. However, when the University dropped the four-day fall break from the academic calendar, the uncertainty of the upcoming trips sank in.
Crook and Singalreddy hurriedly texted one another, anxiously brainstorming ways to save the break experience.
“Chetan and I came up with a roadmap with a mock schedule and components that we thought were important on all APPLES breaks,” Crook said. “We brainstormed with the Alternative Winter Break leaders and (APPLES staff advisor) Becca Bender. They gave us the idea to focus on different components: education, service, socials and reflection.”
Crook and Singalreddy advised the trip leaders that it was okay to change prior plans for the breaks. Instead, the leaders could focus on the core components of APPLES while planning virtual weekend experiences.
The student leaders found new partners, and some even re-framed the focus of their alternative break trips. For instance, the co-leaders of a trip originally focused on rural communities pivoted their focus to public education.
Tahia Hannan, a co-leader for the Alternative Fall Break trip centered on Latinx communities, was committed to keeping the core component of reflection at the heart of their experience. She and her co-leader planned a weekend of online meetings devoted to reflecting on issues faced by Latinx communities.
On the first day, the leaders scheduled group discussions on participants’ identities and their relationships to Latinx communities, a part of the break that usually happened naturally in between scheduled service activities.
“Being on Zoom forced us to talk about identity more,” Hannan said. “We set out specific structured time to talk about this and felt that it was very important.”
The next day, Hannan and her trip participants met with guest speakers from Student Action with Farmworkers and Curamericas Global who described lived experiences of Latinx communities in the pandemic, during anti-racist protests of the summer and in the charged atmosphere around the 2020 presidential election.
On the final day, the group reflected on their lessons from community partners and discussed how to advocate for Latinx communities through voting.
The group brought life to their virtual reflections by expressing their thoughts with another on Jamboards.
Even in the short time they had together, Hannan was happily surprised by the enthusiasm of her group.
“I would say that one of the biggest things that I saw was that everyone who elected to be on the (alternative break) really showed up to be here,” Hannan said. “It really exceeded my expectations.”
After hearing reports of meaningful engagement from the Alternative Fall Break students, Alternative Winter Break Co-Chairs Dejah Ball and Carrie Turner sought to replicate their success.
Ball and Turner helped co-leaders plan three virtual trips centered around hunger and houselessness, rural communities, and disaster recovery — with the latter focusing on mental health crises during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having a longer timeline than the fall break leaders, the Alternative Winter Break leaders focused on building new relationships with diverse partners. Through online meetings, the student groups connected with multiple organizations across the state in a single day.
“Break leaders worked to keep the community partners we’ve had for years, but also reached out to new ones,” Ball said. “For instance, the hunger and houselessness leaders connected with community partners in Asheville that we normally spend time with but also reached out to the Community Empowerment Fund in Chapel Hill.”
Students found connection online, preparing and participating in alternative breaks in Zoom meetings.
Spending days of their winter break together online, students found themselves reflecting deeply and having fun. Groups of friends formed among students who’d never met in person.
For leaders like Ball, Hannan and Crook, one of the largest takeaways from the breaks was a sense of pride in that they found opportunities to connect through service-learning, against all odds.
“I’m just really proud of everyone’s resilience during this time,” Ball said. “And that everyone could experience APPLES this year is great.”