They Traded in Their Beach Towels for Work Gloves: Alternative Spring Break

NJIT students participate in an alternative spring break, here planting dune grass in Sea Bright. Photo Credit: Star-Ledger

Hundreds of NJIT students spent their spring break at the Jersey shore.  But instead of partying, they worked. And they weren’t paid for their work, at least not with money. They were paid with the wages of good conscience.  

In what is known as alternative spring break, 300 students volunteered to forgo vacations and delve into community service.Their projects ranged from buttressing beaches damaged by Sandy to helping homeowners rebuild.  The projects extended across the state -- from Little Ferry to Seaside Heights -- and even into Staten Island.

NJIT students are tomorrow’s engineers and architects and builders. They love to engineer their way through problems. They’re also community-minded. In fact, for four years in a row NJIT placed on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. The gallery in Weston Hall was converted into the Alternative Spring Break headquarters, which deployed volunteers throughout the state. The Career Development Services Civic Engagement team was there from sun up to sun down, answering phones and greeting the volunteers each morning and evening upon their return to campus. The team stayed in touch with the volunteers in the field, strategizing and problem solving. The mission was to ensure that the volunteers were safe, sound and enjoying their work. 

"This a great week for student volunteers to network and forge memories and bonds with their peers and other participants," said Vivian Lanzot, assistant director for Career Development Services at NJIT. "The Alternative Spring Break creates leaders while promoting civic engagement."

The break was ideally suited to NJIT students, giving them a chance to use their technical skills to protect the environment and bolster communities.

Here’s an overview of just some of the work the students did this week:        

On Saturday, teams of students traveled to Island Beach State Park, where they planted grass on dunes, a vital buttress of the shoreline.

On Sunday, a team of students and one graduate visited a nonprofit in Elizabeth (Future City Inc.), where they made storyboards and videos about various aspects of emergency preparedness.

During the week, teams of other students fanned out to Bergen County and Staten Island, rebuilding houses and cleaning up neighborhoods damaged by Sandy. Others traveled to Seaside and Point Pleasant to help design access ramps that will make it easier for disabled people to get to the beaches.

On Thursday, students went to Sea Bright to build dune fencing. They also did work in Highlands and Middletown, while other teams visited Newark and Jersey City to clean up parks and community gardens and to help nonprofit groups. 

On Friday and through the weekend, they’ll do clean-up and landscaping work in Newark’s Ironbound section and in Jersey City.

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Here are a few comments from students who worked on the projects.

Aldona Puchalski is a freshman majoring in biology.

I worked with Habitat for Humanity in Little Ferry, N.J. It was a super-fun and productive day. We broke up into groups of two and went to different homes.  I began the day by sanding doors and wall trims, and then went into nailing/hammering the trims and finally painting the trimming and clear coating some doors with wood primer.  It was great seeing how much we accomplished in just a few hours. I am definitely interested in doing it again and will be back again next break (if not sooner).

Monica Doss is a junior majoring in law, technology and culture.

I signed up to help because I thought it would be an awesome opportunity for our on-campus club because we would get to spend the day volunteering our time as well as enjoying fellowship together throughout the day. We worked at Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant to help with an accessibility project run by Thomas Dallessio, Director of the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design.  It has to do with planning the ramps and boardwalks so that disabled people would have access to the beach and boardwalk. The project was interesting and rewarding; we all learned a lot, enjoyed our time together and we got a glimpse of the beach anyway.

Hardik Darji is a junior majoring in mechanical engineering.

I signed up for alternative spring break to give something back to community and to help people rebuild their houses and their surroundings. I worked in Staten Island with the organizations Tunnel to Towers and Yellow Boots. It was rewarding and yes, it was better than the beach. Because we saw damaged houses, and also saw that the owners didn't have enough resources to rebuild their houses. So we helped some of them to rebuild. Moreover, during that volunteering time, we learned so much about how to rebuild houses and how to use different machines. Also we worked in teams, and we had fun with other volunteers. In fact, I was team leader of the group that went to Staten Island, so I learned a lot about leadership.

By Robert Florida