Students looking at mural in New York City

Fall break: A time for service on and off campus for Princeton students

Nov. 16, 2017 noon

Through Breakout Princeton and Breakout Local with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, Princeton University students engaged in service over fall break, learning about the impact of social issues in communities near and far. Above: In New York City, the "Decision-Making and Discrimination: Environmental Justice in Urban Settings" Breakout Princeton trip team met with El Puente, a community human rights institution that promotes leadership for peace and justice through engagement in the arts, education, scientific research, wellness and environmental action, to understand more about environmental justice in urban communities.

What is service? Volunteering. Learning. Discussion. Collaboration. Activism. Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Over fall break, 70 Princeton University undergraduates took part in service in its many forms through the Pace Center for Civic Engagement’s Breakout Princeton and Breakout Local programs, Oct. 28-Nov. 6.

Breakout Princeton provides students with the opportunity to go on fully funded service-learning trips every fall and spring break. Breakout Local enables students staying on campus during fall, winter and spring breaks to learn more about social issues impacting the Princeton region and engage in local communities.

“Service can be many things,” said Eliza Blades, program coordinator for Breakout Princeton and Breakout Local with the Pace Center. “It can be direct service and volunteering. It can be exercising your civic responsibility to vote. It can be dialogue with someone who believes in something totally different from you. Breakout Princeton and Breakout Local give students the opportunity to see this spectrum and connect pressing topics and social issues with their Princeton experience.”

Mikaela Bankston writing on Pace Center wall

Princeton senior Mikaela Bankston, who volunteered with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen as part of Breakout Local, reflects on what service means to her at the Breakout Local dinner at the Pace Center.

Close to home

Started in 2016, Breakout Local combines volunteer preparation with hands-on service opportunities and reflection. This year, 12 students ranging from first-year students to seniors took part.

“This initiative began because students approached us and said ‘I’m going to be here during break, what can I do, how can I help?’,” said Blades. “Breakout Local gives students the opportunity to support organizations in the community and to broaden their understanding of what service can be at Princeton.”

After taking part in a Volunteer 101 training to get oriented about what it means to do service well and to learn about the context of hunger and homelessness in the Mercer County region, participants prepped and served meals at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and sorted food and worked on other projects at HomeFront’s Lawrence Community Center. Students gathered at the end of the week for a reflective dinner to share what they learned and experienced.

“I learned to be patient,” said Jazmyn Blackburn, a junior majoring in sociology who volunteered at HomeFront and whose service interests include education. “When you volunteer, you often feel like you should be doing something, taking action, all the time.”

“I can agree with that,” added Janaya Bruce, a first-year student and potential molecular biology major. “At HomeFront, a group had come in before us and done a lot of work already, so it felt like there wasn’t a whole lot for us to do. But we had to remember that it wasn’t all about what we wanted to do, but what the community or organization needs. Many people see it as their responsibility to give back to the community, but they don’t understand that responsibility. It’s as much about giving back as it is about being shaped by the community.”

Students in Boston Commons

The "Breaking Down Barriers: An Intersectional Approach to Mental Health Access" trip team takes a scenic walk around Boston Commons in between visits with community organizations.

On the road

Up and down the East Coast, Princetonians took part in Breakout Princeton trips focusing on mental health, the arts, the environment, gentrification and homelessness. In all, 58 undergraduates participated in five student-designed and student-led trips:

  • "Charm City: Maintaining Community in the Midst of Gentrification" in Baltimore
  • "The Drop-in Model: Exploring Temporary Solutions to Youth Homelessness" in Philadelphia
  • "Breaking Down Barriers: An Intersectional Approach to Mental Health Access" in Boston
  • "Decision-Making and Discrimination: Environmental Justice in Urban Settings" in New York City
  • "Dance Education Access: Culture, Race and the Body" in New York City

With guidance and support from a Breakout Princeton student board, trip leaders began planning their fall trip experiences in the spring and summer, building relationships with community organizations and hosts, setting itineraries, and developing preparatory materials — everything from articles to read to conversations with faculty — to set the stage for participants. While on Breakout Princeton, students on each trip shared daily blog entries chronicling their experiences, reactions, perceptions and learning.

For Kathleen Ma, a senior and co-leader of the "Decision-Making and Discrimination" trip focusing on environmental justice in New York City, the trip brought to light how the topic they were studying could be used as a lens to see other issues in a new way.

“We were able to learn about how environmental justice intersects with a range of issues — including climate change and climate justice, gentrification, workers' rights, segregation, community building, heath, and food justice,” said Ma. “One community partner emphasized to us that this is the new normal — that we're going to be confronting the effects of climate change for the rest of our lives. … We have to think seriously about [how] the impacts of climate change are shaped by race, class, gender, access to political representation, and capital. Learning from the work that has already been done in environmental justice, and how the climate justice movement builds upon it, is going to be imperative.” 

Students unpacking groceries at Arch Street Methodist Church

Princeton University students unpack groceries at the Arch Street Methodist Church, their home for fall break, as they learn about solutions to youth homelessness in Philadelphia.

Lasting impact

After break, students reported that taking part in Breakout Princeton and Breakout Local shaped their perceptions, perspectives and actions back on campus.

“As a Somali American, I wanted to know more about the resources available to those who are refugees in the Boston community as well as how stigma about mental health was addressed by those who work in social services,” said Sirad Hassan, a sophomore and co-leader of a Breakout Princeton trip focused on access to mental health care in Boston. “I am [now] more interested in working in the mental health field and potentially specializing in either neuropathology or psychiatry. … In the future, I would like to work to help create a mental health clinic in Somalia that provides care to individuals that are not being served, as of yet, by the Chain-Free initiative run by the World Health Organization.” 

After meeting with the Boston Public Health Commission, Nourhan Ibrahim, a sophomore and co-leader with Hassan of the "Breaking Down Barriers" trip, is strongly considering pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

“I want to take more psychology or neuroscience courses here to further explore mental health,” she said. “I am also very excited to work on post-trip activities with our group, because I think we can potentially create some sustainable and impactful projects. Regardless of what direction I go, I know that I hope to incorporate mental health care access to some extent, because this trip made me realize I am truly passionate about it and hope to see long-lasting changes made.”

For Mikaela Bankston, a senior who served at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen during Breakout Local, her experience reinforced the importance of valuing community voices and perspective.

“I’ll be doing Teach for America back in Houston after I graduate and before I go to medical school,” she said. “With all the storms and other issues in Texas right now there’s a lot going on and it’s complicated. People often over-simplify things and don’t put themselves in others’ positions. [Breakout Local] reminded me of the importance of always gaining that insight and preparing myself for what’s ahead.”

“Each day of Breakout left me in awe,” added Hassan. “We are all very much passionate about making a change in our own individual ways — whether it be through our academic interests, future career paths, or in how we approach treating those we come into contact with as we live our lives within and beyond the orange bubble.”

Read more about students’ Breakout Princeton experiences

Students posing in front of Mazzoni Center sign

Students in the Breakout Princeton trip team "The Drop-in Model: Exploring Temporary Solutions to Youth Homelessness" met with the Mazzoni Center to learn about how the organization focuses on health education and care in the Philadelphia area.