Micajah Daniels started at UNLV unsure of how to incorporate her varied interests — city planning, agriculture, law, the list goes on — but one thing was certain: she wanted to make a difference.
Two spring break trips and one week in May spent volunteering with UNLV’s Alternative Breaks program has provided the public health and sociology student with career clarity. The experiences included two stints learning about food and housing insecurity in San Francisco and, most recently, working side by side with convicted felons and non-profit leaders baking, folding T-shirts, and more at Los Angeles community centers to learn about youth crime prevention and life after incarceration.
"The experience was very hands-on. We were submerged within the work we were doing and had limited access to technology and things we were accustomed to. It really pulls a person out of their element," Daniels said. "While participating in this hands-on experience, we're making the connections we need to have that longevity in our careers and achieve our personal and professional goals."
UNLV Alternative Breaks offers service/learning trips that allow students to travel, participate in community service projects, and gain hands-on leadership skills during their academic breaks. The topics of past trips have included Women's Issues, Ecology and Restoration, and Mass Incarceration and Community Development. While most weeklong trips coincide with spring and summer breaks, students who want to get a taste of the experience can also participate in shorter weekend trips closer to home.
Stine Odegard, Assistant Director for Service-Learning and Alternative Break Trips, says students choose to go on alternative breaks for a variety of reasons. Rather than focusing on more classroom-style learning with readings and lectures, Alternative Breaks students engage in activities and are encouraged to apply their classroom learning and critical thinking into the new environments they’re immersed in.
"Sometimes they want to just travel, gain volunteer experience, or apply their own major to the work we do with the communities,” Odegard said.
During this summer’s Los Angeles trip, students and staff worked in a garden with formerly incarcerated individuals. When the drizzling rain turned to a downpour, Daniels and the others went inside to talk to the workers about their experiences working at the community center.
"For me, it was very fulfilling. It really pushed us to think of service on a more interpersonal level,” Daniels said. “Their experiences were relatable, and it was inspiring to see people overcoming adversity."
Daniels' experience also included critical conversations with her student group. As part of their nightly group reflections, she and her peers discussed a world without prisons — whether society would accept the concept, what that would entail, and what they thought it would look like.
"We came to terms with the expectations we had for each other, which ended up being an even bigger debate,” she said, “because of the difference of opinions and because people were responding differently."
Daniels — who has experienced the program both as a novice student and, when she’d gained more experience, as a site leader who helped facilitate student group discussions — has applied to graduate schools in anticipation of graduation this December. She says she’ll use the experience she gained through Alternative Breaks in both her professional and personal life.
“It helped me with leadership skills, conflict resolution, thinking through structure, and how to make processes better,” Daniels said. “It was incredibly rewarding."