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Alternative Break Program History

Beginning in 20072008, students with an interest in supporting 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 the Student Governing Board, but the students quickly realized that in order to fulfill their vision, CSIS would need greater institutional support.

In 2010, the Office of Civic Action and Engagement (OCAE), which later became Student Engagement, was in the process of re-envisioning its 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-Katrina New Orleans and Native communities in South Dakota. The program struggled to gain significant interest, and the trip was essentially token direct service, volunteer tourism and/or cultural immersions. Students were interested in more challenging and comprehensive civic-engagement programming.

In fall 2010, two sophomores and active members of CSIS, Alicia Ciocca (CC’13) and Melissa Peterson (CC’13), walked into the office of OCAE administrator, Pete Cerneka, to discuss ways to expand support for CSIS. 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 spring break 2011. The goals were modest: the project sought to create a curriculum for the team that explored the challenges of landfill communities in Guatemala. Students, in their work with the community partner, Safe Passage, learned how people from developed countries could serve as better partners to people in developing countries. In turn, the team hoped to educate the Columbia community about what it learned. The pilot project proceeded smoothly, and while the team’s goals saw mixed results, the ABP model demonstrated that it could help communities and could function as a workable administrative program.

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

Alternative Break Program


515 Alfred Lerner Hall
2920 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Call: 212-854-1371

9:00 a.m.–5:00p.m.