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Participants of Alternative Weekends visit Feeding America to tackle food justice through food sorting. Participants also volunteered at UC San Diego's own community gardens. Photos by Alternative Breaks at UCSD

Alternative Weekends Program Offers Solution to Addressing Local Social Justice Issues

Students participating in Alternative Breaks at UCSD have traveled to 16 locations internationally and domestically to commit 8,250 hours of service to 15 different nonprofit organizations. The program is devoted to establishing globally conscious active citizens through service trips during academic breaks. Now, a new offshoot to the program offers a one-weekend mini trip that allows students to address social issues in their own backyard.

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Participants of Alternative Weekends participate in service revolving around food justice at Ellie's Garden on UC San Diego campus.

From its first international trip to Salvador, Brazil in 2005, Alternative Breaks at UCSD has flourished into an enormous community where passionate student volunteers can have their hand at helping to address pressing social justice issues around them, not only in the United States but also on the global scale.

However, with the overwhelming influence of global issues, it is relatively easy to overlook the social issues that surround students every day in their own backyard. It was precisely this realization that gave birth to a new program called Alternative Weekends in 2013.

An offshoot of Alternative Breaks, the new program offers a one-weekend mini trip and unfolds the gateway for students who are unable to commit to the yearlong process and monetary commitment required to participate in the Alternative Breaks program.

“As a native San Diegan, being able to tackle San Diego social justice issues firsthand in my own local community was something that was eye-opening as well as impactful on me as an individual,” said Justin Abadejos, a senior at UC San Diego who participated in the Alternative Weekends program.

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Community garden.

Alternative Weekends lives by its motto ‘Think globally, act locally.’ “In addition to being more affordable and more accessible for students, it’s about doing good for the local community. It’s the answer to voluntourism because you’re not a tourist in your own city,” said Nicole Aguirre, co-coordinator of the Alternative Weekends program who has also led a trip to Jamaica as part of the Alternative Breaks program. The main goal of Alternative Weekends is to create genuinely sustainable relationships throughout San Diego by raising awareness in the community about UC San Diego while also generating awareness on campus about the plethora of volunteer opportunities available.

Occurring on a quarterly basis, Alternative Weekends accepts 25-35 participants depending on the trip and depending on the local non-profit organization. Some local non-profit organizations the program has helped support include Tijuana Estuary, Breaking the Silence Against Domestic Violence, Youth and Leaders Living Actively, International Bipolar Foundation and San Diego River Park Foundation.

This year, however, a fourth weekend program was added to specifically target incoming freshmen. “We wanted to make sure that freshmen knew about the program and that service could be a part of their college career a lot earlier because a lot of people wished they had heard about Alternative Breaks earlier in college,” said Aguirre.

For the weekend program, participants are charged $20 to cover the cost of a T-shirt and food for both days, posing as a great option for those who don’t have the resources to make the financial commitment to a spring break trip.

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Alternative Weekends participants volunteer locally at UC San Diego's community gardens in Eleanor Roosevelt College.

The first day covers an introduction to Alternative Breaks and Alternative Weekends, education on social justice issues and non-profit organizations and how they function. The orientation usually entails guest speakers, documentaries, and presentations by the service leaders. The second day of the program involves strong direct service in the morning followed by reflection of the service immediately afterwards.

Besides creating sustainable relationships in the community, Alternative Weekends also gives students a taste of active citizenship before engaging in the yearlong program. “We intentionally have our event in the middle of Alternative Breaks recruitment as an opportunity for students to see what we’re all about without making the full commitment just yet,” said Aguirre.

Alternative Weekends also serves as a training ground for program participants who want to gain and refine experience in leading a group of student volunteers before applying to become a service leader in the larger Alternative Breaks program, otherwise known as the Alternative Breaks Collaborative.

Aguirre shared that she chose to service lead for an Alternative Weekends trip in the past because she wanted to hone her own leadership abilities for leading a service trip to Jamaica in 2015. “I was a bit skeptical of what a weekend could do, but it went a lot better than I expected,” she said. “It was great to see people who had never been exposed to the eight components of Alternative Breaks learn everything that took me a year to learn within a weekend. It’s what makes it worth it.”

The Alternative Weekends program has seen tremendous growth in catalyzing active citizenry and in pursuing its dream to foster connections with the local community. “From just one weekend trip in 2013 at its start, Alternative Weekends has identified great success in exposing students at UC San Diego to the essence of Alternative Breaks and the components of being a conscientious citizen.”