The “McGill bubble” often makes it difficult to explore the Montreal community. In response, the university started an Alternate Spring Break (ASB) initiative that aims to expand students’ horizons beyond the McGill campus. For students invested in social justice, ASB took place over reading week and offered the opportunity to discover local groups and organizations that play major philanthropic roles in the city. It involved four days of volunteering and a fifth day to provide a recap of the experience. The events span four different fields with 11 organizations around Montreal.
“A lot of other universities have ASB programs–it is something that is starting to be offered a lot by universities as a complement to classroom learning,” explained Jean Murray, community event organizer for the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office. “There’s a lot that [students] can get out of service learning that they can’t get out of classes.”
Students were able to choose from categories that include health and wellness, food security, youth and education, and anti-poverty. The organizations dealing with each sector are all specialized, with work ranging from enhancing the quality of life among individuals living with HIV and AIDS, to workshops creating better awareness of and more access to healthy food.
These organizations all play a big role in the Montreal community. Some participating organizations include Santropol Roulant—a Meals-on-Wheels service—to the St. James Drop-In Centre, which offers a safe and supportive environment for the marginalized or homeless.
“At the SEDE office, we’re not working with big international organizations,” Murray said. “We’re really trying to look in places that are for the community by the community. In doing so, students get to see a part of the Montreal community and engage with people who are in the city with them rather than far away.”
Each organization has its own activities planned for the week. Before registering, students can pick and choose between what the different work entails and are able to plan their weeks accordingly. Each day involves four hours of volunteering with many learning opportunities. Many of the programs develop new and valuable skills, from vermicomposting and fertilization to creating resource kits for children’s books. They also demand a variety of different skills. For instance, many of the organizations need help with maintenance jobs, while others are looking for help with food preparation and serving. Some of the more specialized work includes helping with language course registrations at a learning centre and creating a mural using book covers.
ASB is planned by the combined efforts of the SEDE office, Student Services’ Campus Life & Engagement office, and McGill’s School of Continuing Studies’ Personal and Cultural Enrichment (PACE) program. SEDE’s main focus is on fostering a better understanding among varying cultures and communities through education. They hope to develop a more respectful, diverse, and supportive campus. Similarly, PACE offers workshops throughout the year on different topics with the goal of fostering better personal development to lead to a more successful community.
“This is a partnership; we wanted the students to get a lot in terms of learning but we wanted the organizations to be getting a lot out of it as well,” Murray said. “Ideally, these partnerships that we have with these organizations [are] not a one-time thing. We try and stay involved with these organizations and have them participate in other events, such as Community Engagement Day. It’s a similar idea to ASB, but it happens [on] one day in October.”
The ASB program can also be taken as a one-credit Winter semester course, called CPAC 102: Topics in Volunteerism and Community Development. The course is offered through PACE and also includes readings and seven hours of lecture on top of the volunteer work.