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About the ABP

Below you'll find the ABP mission and philosophies, and important terminology. Learn how the program works and what it offers potential participants. You can also learn what types of civic-engagement the ABP is seeking to support.

For more information on the proposal process or deadlines, please explore those pages, or reach out to us directly with questions.


Mission Statement

The Alternative Break Program (ABP) fosters student leadership development and a life-long interest and commitment to civic engagement by supporting student-driven, solution-based, civic-engagement projects on academic breaks. 


Vision & Values Statement

The ABP is a student-led, and administrator-managed, program that provides programmatic and financial support for students’ independent development and leadership of domestic or international civic-engagement projects over winter, spring, or summer breaks. The ABP uses Civic Competencies as its goals and the 5 Pathways to Service as its tools to strengthen the various communities of which the program is a part.

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ABP-supported civic engagement projects challenge participants to reflect critically upon their role in addressing challenges in their various campus, local, national, and global communities, as well as which types of service will best address those challenges.

The ABP is founded on three primary civic-engagement principles. An ABP team's work needs to be (1) Civic Engagement, (2) solution-based, and encourages teams to use Social Enterprise when designing their civic engagement projects. Creating a project is an exercise in developing a Practice of Civic Engagement

The ABP does not organize or lead civic engagement projects. Eligible student(s) submit proposals for civic engagement project ideas, which includes information about the community in which the student(s) wish to serve, the challenge they wish to address, and the type of civic engagement they feel will best address the challenges in those communities. These proposals are evaluated by the ABP. Accepted proposals receive ABP-support, which includes training, advisement, and funding for travel.

The success of any ABP-supported project depends on the project's leadership and the team's dedication and hard work.  


Motto - "Challenging Service"

"Challenging Service" – Our motto not only encourages people to engage in service they find challenging, but it also encourages people to examine their assumptions about service. The ABP challenges people to think critically about how and why they serve their communities.

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Sometimes well-meaning service is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, harmful to the very communities that need help. Why? People seeking to serve do not always take the time to get to know the people and community, learn from the community about the challenges they face, or what the community wants. In addition, some people do not understand their own interests, skills and tools available to help a community. Without a solid understanding of these things, well-meaning folks are not in a position to effectively address community challenges. 

The ABP wants you to think critically about your civic engagement. How will you align your team's interests, resources, talents, and time with those of the community in a way that enables everyone to tackle a community challenge?


Ways to participate in the ABP

  • Organize a civic engagement project, deciding what challenges to address, who to work with, and what community to work in. NOTE: The ABP will support projects for individuals, but it prioritizes team projects.  
  • Join a team and help the Project Leaders shape the experience.


How the ABP works

  • Through your work as a student, an activist, a scientist, an engineer, an educator, and/or a community member, you (a) discover a community challenge that interests you, (b) or you develop a relationship with a community you'd like to help, (c) or you have a desire to use your skills or knowledge base to help a community.
  • You do initial research on the community challenge and on the community, and identify possible local community partners that could help develop your potential project. 
  • You do initial research to see if your help is needed or wanted by the community.
  • Based on this initial work, you develop and submit a Preliminary Proposal that explores your potential project.
  • After being invited to submit a Final Proposal, you engage in further research on the challenge, community, and community partner. You begin to lay out how you and your team can work with the community to address the challenge.
  • After submitting a Final Proposal, and getting ABP support, you work with the ABP, community, and community partner to fully develop the project - doing further research, developing goals, a plan of action, trip logistics, fundraising plan, and your project outcomes. You help prepare and train your team. You ensure your team will be safe. 
  • All your work with the community and your team leads to implementing the project in the community over a winter, spring or summer break.
  • You return to campus and reflect on your project and, with the community, determine what worked and what could have been improved. You help your team reflect on what they learned and how they grew throughout the experience. 
  • You report back to the ABP about all you have learned and what the ABP did to help you accomplish your goals and what the ABP could do differently in the future to better help future teams. 
  • You develop ways to share what you learned with your campus and other communities. 
  • You take what you learn and use it on your next effort to help a community. 
  • Repeat process for exploring and addressing community challenges throughout your life. 


Funding Model

  • The ABP travel grant covers travel expenses for the team. Local projects can be funded differently and are handled on a case-by-case basis. (see "ABP Resources" below for more information
    • As of fall 2017, all flights must be purchased be purchased directly from airlines.
  • Teams agree to adhere to Columbia travel and financial policies. This may limit travel, fundraising, and spending options. 
  • Teams must use an ABP administrative account to deposit funds raised using Columbia resources and that are specifically to support the project. This account is also used to purchase project expenses. 
  • All team members receiving ABP funds must make a nonrefundable contributions to their teams. The Project Leaders are required to deposit their nonrefundable contributions by the first workshop. Remaining team members are required to deposit their nonrefundable contributions before the purchase of their travel.
    • International projects require a $100 nonrefundable contribution.
    • Domestic projects require a $50 nonrefundable contribution. 
  • Teams have access to their nonrefundable contributions and can spend them on project needs. 
  • Any unused ABP grant money or nonrefundable team contributions are returned to the ABP at the end of the team's project. These funds are not eligible for any reimbursement. 
  • Any unused fundraised money does not go to the ABP but stays in the team's ABP administrative account for future project use. Non-team member donors who can document their contribution can request a refund based on the percentage their donation represented of the overall amount the team fundraised.  


ABP Resources

  • Travel funds: The ABP covers your team's major travel component. Most of the time this is the flight, but arrangements can be made to cover ground transportation such as train or bus, or rental car (some limitations apply). Local projects can have other components of their project funded such as food or housing. This is determined based on need and handled on a case-by-case basis. 
  • Sponsor organization development: Many projects have a sponsor organization lined up in advance, but other projects need help finding and vetting an appropriate community partner. The ABP can help with this. 
  • Project development: The ABP can work with a team from start to finish to develop and create outcomes for your project. Many teams know exactly what they want to do and what their outcomes should be, but many others start with just a good idea and need help shaping that into a comprehensive project. 
  • Team development: The ABP provides workshops and individual training to help recruit and train teams for their project work. These trainings include team dynamics, conflict management, identity workshops to help with identity dynamics on the team and within the community being served. The ABP also runs expectation-setting workshops, which can help a team outline how it wants to run and organize itself. 
  • Fundraising: The ABP will not fundraise for teams, but we can help develop fundraising plans, connect you to opportunities and resources, including grants and corporate matching gift programs. The ABP has never had a team not make its fundraising goals. 
  • Travel planning: The ABP has lots of experience helping teams plan their travel. From booking flights, to visa questions, to how to save money on lodging, to how to arrange local transportation, to how to keep your team safe, the ABP can guide you in the right direction. 
  • Reflection resources: A big component of the ABP is reflection. Our annual Gala is a large exercise in reflection (and telling all of your stories!), but we have lots of other more modest resources and ideas to help your team effectively reflect before, during, and after your project completion. 
  • Navigating the Columbia system: Columbia is a big complicated place. It can be hard to know where to start or go for a particular need. The ABP can help you navigate the various offices, departments and programs that can help you with your work. 
  • Civic engagement knowledge: The ABP has a wealth of knowledge on how to do effective civic engagement. Our philosophies are time and research tested. We can help you understand your work and your role as a member of overlapping communities. This will make your work more effective, more sustainable and more enjoyable. And it will lead to better, stronger, and more just communities. 


Civic Competencies

Civic Competencies are a set of goals and outcomes that we incorporate into our work. 

*The Civic Competencies were created based on the work of academics Caryn McTighe Musil, Ehrlich Colby, and Stephen Beaumont, with contributions from Student Engagement staff. 

Civic Foundations

  • Espouse and live out personal values that promote the welfare of the public good using the ideas of democracy, equality, opportunity, liberty and justice

  • Understand the dynamic connections between our relationships, social standing, and historic moment

  • Engage in relationships with communities humbly, openly and with a sincere sense of equity and responsibility


Civic Knowledge 

  • Support the acquisition of knowledge on public issues affecting local and global communities

  • Develop knowledge of the groups, networks, and systems that address or have the ability to impact public issues

  • Learn about key historical struggles, campaigns, and social movements that sought/seek to achieve the full promise of equality 


Civic Understanding

  • Recognize that knowledge is dynamic, socially constructed and interconnected with power

  • Cultivate and demonstrate cultural awareness

  • Show respect and appreciation for the cultural pluralism and accumulated wisdom of diverse communities


Civic Skills

  • Study and use critical and integrative thinking, conflict resolution, and cooperative methods

  • Communicate effectively - listen eloquently, speak confidently, and participate in constructive deliberation and dialogue

  • Develop a civic imagination and public problem solving skills to seek community-based solutions to public issues


Civic Action

  • Disseminate knowledge and engage in open dialogue about public issues

  • Participate in one or more pathways of service on a transformational level of engagement

  • Move beyond boundaries that traditionally separate communities and strive to work outside your comfort zone 



The 5 Pathways to Service

The 5 Pathways to Service are a way of conceptualizing the work you do in your community, a tool box.

By better understanding the work we want to do, the impact we want to have, the better we can serve. Each community challenge calls for a unique response and a particular type(s) of service. An important component to helping communities in need is identifying what is needed and what is not. Providing a type of service that is not needed, while well-meaning, may be counterproductive and even harmful to communities in the long-term.

*The 5 Pathways to Service were developed by Student Engagement based on previous work done by Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service.   

1. Direct Service

Work that addresses an immediate community challenge.  


- Volunteering with a local organization that distributes food to the homeless. 

- Working with a group to clean up a neighborhood after a tornado strike.

- Tutoring under-performing students in reading and math.

- Visiting shut-in elderly in the neighborhood or at a nursing home. 

- Babysitting at your local church/synagogue/temple for parents attending services.


2. Activism

Work that influences or persuades others in a particular way to address a community challenge. 


- Raising awareness of the needs of the mentally ill by creating a YouTube short film. 

- Working with a nonprofit to develop and run a local campaign to convince the community to eat healthier.

- Encouraging neighborhood kids to play in the park to get exercise through routine conversation. 

- Organizing a silent vigil on a public square to show opposition for war. 

- Discussing the merits of a rainwater cistern for a rural community in Southern Mexico with community members.  

- Speaking to a local group about the importance of wearing seat belts. 


3. Political Participation

Work that uses the processes of democratic self-governance to address a community challenge. 


- Running for public office.

- Joining a community health center in their legislative advocacy efforts in the state capital to ensure that mental health services continue to be funded in our safety net clinics (also activism).

- Voting

- Working with local community leaders to design, build, and maintain a rainwater cistern for a rural community in Southern Mexico.

- Promoting the passage of a proposed seat-belt laws.

- Assisting public health officials in the Surgeon General’s office to design a rational community health response to a swine flu outbreak.

- Surveying local industries and services for evidence of compliance with environmental and safety regulations.


4. Financial Stewardship

Work that secures and/or manages financial support for a type(s) of service to address a community challenge. 


- Donating money to your friend's 5 k-run-fundraising drive to support cancer research.

- Working with a local philanthropic foundation to develop a monitoring and evaluation tool for their grantees.

- Serving on a local nonprofit board.


5. Engaged Scholarship

Work that seeks a long-term, sustainable solution to a community challenge using the skill sets and knowledge base of all those addressing that community challenge. 


- Working with local community to design, build, and maintain a rainwater cistern for an isolated rural community in Southern Mexico. The effort gets buy-in from the community, which commits to raising revenue to maintain the cistern. The design of the cistern fits the knowledge base and resources available to the local community for maintaining the cistern. Local workers creating the cistern learn skills and knowledge that enables them to install and maintain cisterns in nearby local communities, providing those workers with jobs, and those communities a clean water source. (NOTE: while this is an excellent example of engaged scholarship, all of the pathways are used at some point in the project)

- Students learn of a local nonprofit doing great work in Bangladesh that does not have a web presence and little ability to raise funds. The students work with the organization to understand their exact challenge, needs and wants. Together they devise a plan for the students to fund raise for a couple computers, travel to Bangladesh to teach the staff basic computer skills and website development. After a couple weeks of training the Bangladeshi staff has the hardware, software, and computer knowledge to maintain their own website and explore more fundraising opportunities. (AGAIN NOTE: while this is an excellent example of engaged scholarship, all of the pathways are used at some point in the project)


Understanding Engaged Scholarship better

While all of the Pathways are important in particular situations, we see a need for increased efforts in Engaged Scholarship.

All of the Pathways present their own particular challenges, but Engaged Scholarship carries the additional challenge of being work done for the benefit of the long-term. This means that a sustained efforts and longer commitment is usually required of individuals. In addition, Engaged Scholarship sometimes lacks the “instant gratification” or sense of accomplishment someone gets from working with the other Pathways. Working on an Engaged Scholarship project often means working on one smaller piece that then fits into the work done by others, which results in long-term solutions to community challenges.

All the Pathways work best when members of the immediate community being served drive, or are a part of, the proposed solution. Engaged Scholarship, however, is the only Pathway that requires the participation from immediate community members in order to be effective.

Engaged Scholarship will always entail employing one or more of the other Pathways in such a way that (a) involves members of the immediate community in which the work is being done, and (b) where the work is designed to create a sustainable and long-term solution to a challenge.



Beginning in 2007-2008 students interested in developing more support for international civic engagement and service, led by Nishi Kumar (CC '10), came together to form the Columbia Students for International Service (CSIS). CSIS was recognized by SGB, but the students quickly realized that in order to fulfill their vision, CSIS would need more than just support from a student governing board.

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In 2010, the office that was later to become Student Engagement (Office of Civic Action and Engagement - OCAE), was in the process of re-envisioning its more traditional spring break service trip. At the time, an OCAE administrator organized, and ran a spring break trip for about 15 undergraduate students. These trips had traveled to post-Katerina New Orleans and native American communities in South Dakota. The program struggled to gain significant interest, and the trip and service were essentially token direct service, volunteer tourism and/or cultural emersions. It seemed that the students were interested in civic engagement programing ideas that were more challenging and comprehensive.

That fall two sophomores, and active members of CSIS, Alicia Ciocca (CC ’13) and Melissa Peterson (CC ’13), walked into OCAE administrator, Pete Cerneka’s office to discuss ways to get CSIS more support. The three had a long conversation about CSIS, service, and effective civic engagement. They brainstormed ideas that could give CSIS more support and help OCAE rethink its spring break service trip. Over the next several weeks the ideas began to take the shape of an administrative program that would allow students to seek out and get support for developing their own civic engagement projects, both international and domestic. By the end of the first semester, the framework and funding for what would become the ABP was in place.

Ciocca, Peterson, and Cerneka created a pilot project together in Guatemalan landfill communities for the 2011 spring break. The goals were modest. The project sought to create a curriculum for the team that explored the challenges of landfill communities and the Guatemalan poor in general. And then, working with the NGO Safe Passage in Guatemala, learned how people in developed countries could be better partners to people in developing countries. Finally, the team hoped to educate the Columbia community about what it learned. The pilot project proceeded smoothly, and while accomplishing the team’s goals saw mixed results, it was clear to all involved that the ABP model was something students were interested in, potentially could help communities, and was a workable administrative program.

Though the ABP continues to evolve and improve, the first iteration of the ABP closely resembles the program today. Students develop a civic engagement project based on exploring a community challenge and the interests, skillsets, and resources of the community and Columbia students.  The ABP provides funding for the project and works closely with the students to help develop the project.

By the end of the 2017 summer break, the ABP will have supported 60 projects. These projects have taken place in 25 countries and eight U.S. states. The ABP has helped teams raise an estimated $120,000 and awarded $150,000 in grants to support the work of over 350 CC, SEAS, BC, and GS students. And maybe most importantly, the ABP has helped our stduents positively impact countless lives in communities all over the world.



Civic Engagement: Any work whose primary goal is to improve a community. 

Volunteering, volunteer tourism, and community service may or may not be examples of civic engagement. The answer depends on whether the work's primary goal is to improve a community. 

Conversely, holding public office or running a local business may be civic engagement, again depending on whether the work's primary goal is to improve a a community.  

Civic engagement may or may not be solution-based service. It is possible to participate in civic engagement while knowingly or unknowingly not working toward a specific solution to a community challenge, but rather to bring relief, or provide temporary help. 

Community: Any group for which you feel a connection, whether it be on campus, in your family, neighborhood, nation, or world. You may or may not personally know the individuals in a community of which you feel a part, but regardless, you recognize a sense of human connectedness and commonality. 

You may be unknowingly or unwillingly connected in many ways with individuals, groups or areas that are not a part of your community. These people are not a part of your community until you are conscious of a connection.

Community Service: Unpaid work in a community whose primary goal may or may not be to improve a community. Community service is not the same as volunteering, since it is not always performed on a voluntary basis. (i.e. - as a punishment by a court, as a resume builder, as a team building exercise for an office, etc.) Community Service is often not solution-based. 

Practice of Civic Engagement: A continuous evolving reflective process that seeks the intersection between addressing community challenges and individual interest, skills, and resources.

Project Leader: The person(s) who has submitted the Final Proposal and accepted the responsibility for the organization and leadership of the team’s civic engagement project.

There cannot be more than two Project Leaders.

Healthy teams work together and share a vision, responsibilities, and leadership roles. Teams have autonomy in terms of how they want to organize themselves. For example, teams may choose to use a horizontal organizational structure that uses consensus decision-making. Regardless, it is required that a team designate a Project Leader who assumes responsibility for working with the ABP to ensure the success of the team.

Project Leader Responsibilities:

  • Ensuring the group follows all ABP policies and procedures, including adhering to deadlines and attending trainings
  • Working with other ABP project leaders to share ideas, brainstorm solutions to challenges, and provide support to each other
  • Recruiting and developing your team
  • Establishing and completing your team’s goals for the trip
  • Working with the sponsor organization
  • Building and adhering to a budget
  • Securing the funding required for the trip

Social Enterprise: Entrepreneurial work using business concepts of sustainability that attempts to create an added social value beyond what private enterprise normally provides. 

Social enterprise recognizes that, while markets do not meet every social need, and that while profit-motivation limits the impact business has addressing community challenges, using entrepreneurial and business mindsets and strategies can provide innovation and frameworks helpful to addressing community challenges. 

Service Learning (also known as Academic-Based Service): A form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes. 

Service learning may or may not be civic engagement, depending on the primary goal of the work. If the goal is primarily knowledge acquisition, the service learning is not civic engagement.

Solution-Based Service: Work that can clearly identify the community challenge it addresses, the community involved, and how the efforts will lead to a solution to the challenge.

While the ABP primarily uses the term in understanding long-term, sustainable work, there are degrees to solution-based service. For example, picking up trash in a neighborhood hit by a bad storm is not a long-term sustainable solution to trash; it is solution-based in that after picking up the trash, the community challenge (ie - post-storm trash) has been addressed. 

Solution-based service may seem intuitive or obvious, but not all service is the same, and many attempts at service are not set up and run to solve a community challenge. Some are designed primarily to provide "experiences" for volunteers. Volunteer tourism, service learning, cultural immersion and other like-model experiences can be wonderful and instructive. They can lead to greater understanding of a community and its challenges, or an increased ability to empathize with people from different cultures, identities, classes, and situations. The work involved, however, often is not designed to directly lead to a solution to a community challenge. These service models are not solution-based. 

The ABP's solution-based model does not mean that ABP teams' civic engagement projects single-handedly solve community challenges over an academic break, quite the opposite. ABP teams work with partnering community organizations and play a specific part or role in the solution to a community challenge. 

Volunteer Tourism: A form of tourism in which travelers participate in unpaid work. The work is not solution-based service and the primary focus is to provide an experience for the tourist or to raise funds for an organization offering the experience. 

Volunteering: A very broad term describing any unpaid work. The term is often used to describe giving one's time, effort, and talent to help someone or a community. In this context the work may or may not be civic engagement or solution-based. 

*The above definitions were developed by Student Engagement staff using the following resources: Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, Columbia University's Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, Campus Compact, Stanford University's Haas Center, Princeton University's Pace Center, Fordham University's Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice


Alternative Break Program


515 Alfred Lerner Hall
2920 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Call: 212-854-1371

9:00 a.m.–5:00p.m.