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Making a Difference to Our Newest Neighbors

Emerson College students do yardwork during the 2015 Alternative Spring Break in El Paso, Texas. 

Spring break is a chance to catch up with family and friends, recharge batteries, escape the cold.  

It’s also a chance to change your life.

This year, 12 students will travel to El Paso, Texas, to work with undocumented immigrants in the biggest border town in the United States. Three dozen more will stay local to help immigrant communities here in Boston as part of Alternative Spring Break (ASB).

ASB has been going on at Emerson for the last 13 years, but this is the third year of the El Paso program, and the second year that the Boston program has also focused on the immigrant experience.

“We’re really considering [immigration] the civil rights issue of our time,” said Ashley Tarbet DeStefano ’09, program coordinator of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research, which is organizing the projects.

In El Paso, students will learn about issues on the border and will work directly with agencies and people who have crossed over from Juarez, Mexico. They plan to cook meals at shelters, clean rooms at a pregnancy crisis center, and work in a community garden at the poorest school in the district.

It’s too late for students to join the group heading to the Lone Star State, but up until March 1, the Emerson community can still register for the activities in Boston, where they can make a difference to immigrants closer to home.

Emerson students help conduct mock interviews with immigrants during last year's Boston-based Alternative Spring Break, a service they'll provide again this year. 

“Alternative Spring Break is a great opportunity to get to know more about the Boston community from a very different perspective than you would just going about your daily business as an Emersonian,” Tarbet DeStefano said. “It’s been cited by many, many participants as a life-changing experience. It’s just an incredible, unique way to learn about the world around you.”

On Monday, March 7, volunteers will partner with Emerson’s Office of Career Services to offer career workshops to clients of the Gilbert Albert Community Center in Dorchester. The center serves members of the Haitian American, Latin American, and West African communities, and the workshops will help clients with résumé writing, online job applications, and interview skills.

On Wednesday, March 9, volunteers will watch a group of immigrants get sworn in as new American citizens at the JFK Library, and afterward will help them register to vote for the first time.

Other activities will include playing with unaccompanied minors from Latin America through the Chelsea Collaborative, participating in a reenactment of a march to push for immigration reform and close detention centers, and running a letter-writing campaign to get legislators to support immigration reform, Tarbet DeStefano said.

Ilina Ghosh is just a first-year student at Emerson, but she’s already helping organize this year’s local ASB.

Although Ghosh is relatively new to Emerson, she’s an old hand at community service, having volunteered throughout high school. She said service is both selfless and self-gratifying.

“It makes you feel really amazing when you do it,” Ghosh said. “And I think that feeling of mutual respect and happiness you get from someone else, and you realize you have more worth than just helping yourself…I think is a really exhilarating and powerful feeling that helped me a lot in high school.”

Katie Grindeland ’16, another student organizer, said if she had known how valuable the experience was, she would have gotten involved in Alternative Spring Break her freshman year too. 

“One of the things we like to say at Alternative Spring Break, and this is a [Director of Academic Engagement and Community Action] Suzanne Hinton quote, is ‘It’s not a week, it’s a way,’” said Grindeland ’16, who went to El Paso last year.

Grindeland said she decided to go to El Paso after a fellow Acting student came back from ASB and changed her major and her life goals.

Now that she knows she has the tools to help others, Grindeland said, the decision to use her spring break to help others seems like “such a simple choice.”

“Emerson is a college of storytellers, and we have to figure out what stories we want to tell, and whose stories we want to put out into the world,” she said. 

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