Student led initiatives, now known as alternative breaks, began on college campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of an overall surge of interest in institutionalizing community service on college campuses. Rather than travel to a traditional spring break location, groups of students came together to form a new community that was immersed in education on social issues, service work, and reflection.
In 1991, a national nonprofit organization called Break Away: The Alternative Break Connection was founded. The purpose was to gather the resources and best practices for the alternative spring break programs that had been established on multiple campuses across the U.S.
For the last two decades, there has been a consistent increase in the number of colleges and universities with alternative break programs. This growth accelerated in the mid 2000's, and has been attributed to two factors: 1) the institutionalization of volunteer service as an integral part of the college experience, 2) the overwhelming interest in service work along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
An alternative Spring Break is a trip where a group of college students (usually 10-12 per trip) engage in volunteer service, typically for a week. Alternative break trips originated with college students in the early 1980s as a counter to "traditional" spring break trips.
Each trip has a focus on a particular social issue, such as (but not limited to) poverty, education reform, refugee resettlement, and the environment. Students learn about the social issues and then perform week-long projects with local non-profit organizations. Alternative Spring Break Trips are also drug and alcohol-free experiences, with a heavy emphasis on group and individual reflection.
The aim of the experience is to contribute volunteer hours to communities in need, and to positively influence the life of the alternative breaker. Breakers are emboldened to take educated steps toward valuing and prioritizing their own communities in life choices such as recycling, donating resources, voting, etc.