Imagine a spring break from college clearing brush along gnarly nature trails, rounding up refuse at Assateague Island National Seashore and making over an unkempt cemetery.
Along with cultural excursions sprinkled in, that's what eight University of Maryland Eastern Shore students did during the third week of March as participants in an intensive six-day service-learning project.
“Whoever came up with the idea of an alternative spring break is brilliant,” sophomore Keona Smith said. The “whole week (was) full of great experiences that were needed - all taking place in perfect timing.”
Credit Clifton Harcum, director of the Office of University Engagement & Lifelong Learning, with an assist from administrative assistant Susan Rainey.
Harcum, the creative force behind similar student-centered projects, crafted an itinerary combining a diverse series of mind-and-matter experiences that student-volunteers universally agreed left lasting impressions.
“Being a part of the 2017 alternative spring break (was) one of the best decisions I have made this semester,” sophomore Samuel O. Lebarty said.
Senior Diamond Nwaeze said participating “helped me realize the historical and ecological significance of the area in which we reside.”
It “strengthened the importance of interpersonal relationships amongst all ranks of the UMES student body, and the outward community,” she said.
A late March report published online by Forbes noted research by the LendEDU.com website that estimated 30 percent of college students use loans to pay for spring break trips to exotic locations.
Then there was UMES' group, which righted toppled headstones at a long-neglected cemetery in Crisfield, bagged up trash on the beach south of the Ocean City Inlet and cleared debris along two miles of walking paths at the Hazel Outdoor Discovery Center near Eden.
Nwaeze had such a positive experience, she sent a hand-written “thank you” note to the Hazel center, the group's base camp throughout the week.
“I have always taken an interest in sustainable agriculture (and) horticulture,” the biology major wrote. “So much so, I have made it a primary goal to have a career that encompasses elements of both of these areas of study.”
Jim Rapp, the Hazel center's executive director, took to Facebook to acknowledge Nwaeze's gesture and posted photos.
“Thank you to Diamond for the nice note,” Rapp wrote, “and thanks to her and all our friends from UMES for spending their alternative spring break helping the community and exploring the Shore while camping at HODC. We appreciate you, and hope you will camp with us again.”
Harcum organized spring break activities for students instincts told him had no formal plans for the week off from classes, and in some cases, could not travel home because they hail from another country.
UMES' spring breakers gamely camped out at the Hazel center, where each day they embarked on a different adventure. A visit to the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park near Cambridge resonated with them.
“It was a wonderful experience to be able to witness where she was held as a slave, and the ways she used to free slaves,” sophomore Axel Bayingana said. “It was really intriguing to become educated on how African Americans went from slavery to doing great things for America.”
Junior Ugo Okwaraogoma said the Tubman excursion “inspired my soul of how she didn't know how to read or write, but God guided her … to fight against the government - and win.”
Taryn Jones' “favorite part … (staying) at the Hazel center was being able to sit outside every night and star gaze.”
“There isn't much light pollution, (which) allowed the opportunity to sit back and take in all the beauty the sky had to offer,” the sophomore said. “I really appreciate opportunities like this because I was able to be out of my usual environment and just take in the beauty of nature.”
A day trip to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington provided more cultural perspective.
It made Nwaeze “reevaluate what 'being black' meant in the scope of America and its core values - freedom, liberty and so on.”
“I was taught … the value of history,” she said, “and knowing history so that similar malicious events can be prevented in the future.”
An 85-minute ferry ride across the Delaware Bay to visit the Cape May County (N.J.) Park & Zoo was a first sea-going experience for several of the students.
“When it came time to put in work,” however, senior Kahleo M. Smith said “you best believe we put in work like only UMES students know how.”
The week's itinerary included a work project where the group took on a preservation task at historic Nelson Cemetery.
Zoe Johnson, a doctoral candidate in UMES' toxicology program, called that experience “another opportunity to get physically engaged with manual work … repairing fences, cutting off tree stumps and grasses, and renovating grave stones.”
“This was not just (restoration) work,” Johnson said, “but we were briefed on the historical context of the area and its importance, so we could value the meaning of our work and efforts.”
Lebarty said “being a part of the events helped me develop a relationship with other students on campus who I didn't know too well before hand.”
Bayingana said the week “helped me grow as a person, and I'm grateful that I was given the chance to go.”
Perhaps Keona Smith summarized it best: “Who knew community service and staying at school over break, when you could be home with family and friends, could be so great?
She affirmed her observations with a Social Media shout-out; “#AlternativeSpringBreak.”