Spring Breakers and Changemakers: Looking Back at 2024’s Alternative Spring Breaks

29 May 2024

by Eko Manson ‘23, 5th Year Educational Associate

Some students use spring break to rest at home. Others travel to places like Miami Beach or Bourbon Street. Meanwhile, some use spring break to volunteer and think critically about ethical community engagement. 

Every spring break the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) teams up with multiple community partners to plan this third type of spring break. By working collaboratively throughout the planning process, we create a two-way street between Carleton and our partner sites. The resulting Alternative Spring Break trips are a resource for the host sites and a unique opportunity for students to learn about and take action to address issues affecting our community.

And, thanks to generous financial support from the Julianne Williams Memorial Fund, the cost of participation is greatly reduced to only $100 per student (or free, if this cost is still a barrier). Alternative Spring Breaks are thus one of the cheapest break options for students.

Fourteen students went on the two trips offered this year. One group, dubbed “Food and Community,” stayed at Carleton over break to work with four organizations, each of which meaningfully contributes to the local food system in one way or another: Sharing Our Roots farm, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) Organics Recycling Facility, Northfield’s Curbside Compost Collective, Carleton’s Food Recovery Network, and the Northfield Community Education Center (NCEC) Food Shelf.  

The second group headed four hours north to Finland, Minnesota, to volunteer at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and experience firsthand their approach to environmental education and sustainability. Spanning 2,000 acres, Wolf Ridge is dedicated to experiential learning. They promote a commitment to environmental conservation and stewardship, offer educational experiences for over 12,000+ visitors annually, and have a long history of deep engagement with their local community. 

Speaking of long history: this was the twelfth year that Wolf Ridge welcomed Carleton students for an Alternative Spring Break! Additionally, one of the students on this year’s trip to Wolf Ridge was Adele Fredericks ‘25, a veteran Alternative Spring Breaker who’s gone on this trip three years in a row. Adele’s experience helps in her role as Trip Leader, which involves taking charge of day-to-day logistics and leading group reflections along with her co-leader, Aaron Lobsenz ‘26.

Wolf Ridge kept its Carleton volunteers busy during their week-long stay. Students assisted in renovating a high tunnel with double wire channel, harvested microgreens, notched and stacked logs to build compost bins, and shoveled and spread a lot of finished compost to the field. Although it’s “spring” break, the wintery Minnesota weather had yet to cease, and the students had to brave the cold while they worked outside. On this note, Aaron reflected that “the struggles which my group and I experienced have provided me significantly more respect for those who do this work.” Adele adds that while the work was challenging at times, “there was also an attitude of support in the community that allowed for creative, communal, and joyful solutions.”

Aaron dumps a harvested microgreen tray of used potting mix into a compost bin while bundled up to stave off the cold.

Student volunteers carefully harvest microgreens.

A significant portion of Wolf Ridge’s visitors are K-12 classes from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Alt-Breakers got the chance to sit in on a class being taught to youth, which Adele notes “brought about interesting discussion about education equity and the ways that environmental education interacts with social issues that impact the world today.”

Sarah Mayer, Wolf Ridge’s organic farm manager, has worked closely with the Alternative Spring Break program for multiple years. She sees working with Carleton students as another way of fulfilling Wolf Ridge’s mission, saying:

“Wolf Ridge Farm partners with Carleton’s Alternative Spring Break Student Volunteers year after year for the same reasons Wolf Ridge hosts K-12 students during the school year and campers during the summer. All of these groups learn about their peers, themselves, Mother Nature, and what it means to build relationships. Deep bonds form among students when they join forces to reach a common goal within awe-inspiring outdoor learning spaces, especially when that goal is uncomfortable or challenging. There’s no debate that growing the healthiest soil, in order to grow the healthiest food, which grows the healthiest us, can be very challenging! These new experiences can inspire both community care and earth care for the folks who take on these challenges, well into their future.”

In the Carleton spirit of “work hard, play hard,” the students also got to enjoy some of Wolf Ridge’s recreational perks like hiking and a ropes course.

A waving student on the ropes course seems to be walking on air.

Although four hours south of Wolf Ridge, the “Food and Community” local trip also faced cold weather while they explored themes of horizontal power structures, natural land restoration, sustainability, composting, and culturally-affirming agricultural practices.

Most of their days were spent with Sharing Our Roots, a land justice-oriented farm focused on regenerative agriculture and providing land access for new and emerging immigrant, BIPOC, and queer farmers. These farmers can use their tract of Sharing Our Root’s land to grow vegetables, herbs, flowers, or to support livestock. Many are in the process of building their own CSA (community supported agriculture) businesses. 

Sharing Our Roots is also passionate about land restoration and the health of the local ecosystems. Student volunteers were taught how to identify and remove invasive plants like buckthorn and planted native species in their place. They also helped with the placement of motion-sensing cameras around the farm. Sharing Our Roots now uses these cameras to (literally) see how regenerative agriculture impacts native species and wildlife diversity. They’ve suspected that badgers live on the farm for years now, but the first visual confirmations were captured by the newly installed cameras. The cameras have also gotten photos of coyotes, deer, raccoons, and striped skunks on the farm. 

Margaret Anderson, the AmeriCorps VISTA at Sharing Our Roots, shared that:

“Alternative Spring Break programming is a great way to jump start our growing season. This year, many hands transplanted and propagated hundreds of native species in record time! Our natural lands will benefit from these efforts for years to come. The thoughtful discussions held with students throughout the Spring Break program continue to inspire our work to build resilient, environmentally responsible agricultural systems. We look forward to having students back out at the Farm in the future!”

Students removed invasive plants by the truckload.

One of the many badger photos taken by Sharing Our Roots’ new motion-sensing cameras. 

In between their days spent at Sharing Our Roots, the Food and Community trip toured two composting operations. The SMSC Organics Recycling Facility offered a deeply informative introduction to the science and business of composting from the perspective of a large-scale organization owned by the SMSC government and located on tribal lands. The group then got acquainted with Curbside Compost Collective, a grassroots worker co-op that promotes composting in Northfield by offering weekly compost collection services. 

Dustin Montey, Director of the SMSC Organics Recycling Facility (left) and Carls standing in front of a heaping pile of compost.

The American flag and Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community flag flying above the SMSC Organics Recycling Facility.

Smiling students holding a Curbside Compost Cooperative sign.

Students cleaning compost buckets.

The Food and Community participants also stepped up to support food access and redistribution. During academic terms, Carleton students recover leftover food from the dining halls and Cub, as well as staff the NCEC Food Shelf a mere five-minute drive from campus. But over spring break, these student volunteers left Northfield. The local Alternative Spring Break was able to fill in these gaps, ensuring that food recovery efforts continued and the NCEC Food Shelf remained open over break. 

The students barely fit in the van filled with recovered food for the food shelves.

The Food and Community Alternative Spring Break was a new and experimental trip, but we are happy with what it was able to accomplish and are looking forward to improving it in the future. Katelyn Hemmer ‘24, one of two Trip Leaders for the local trip, reported that “as a group, I think

we highly benefited from doing activities spanning all parts of the system, from seed to store to

table to waste.” 

I think Fátima Reyes, the second Food and Community Trip Leader, speaks for all of us as she expresses her gratitude:

“We would like to thank not only the Julianne Williams Fund and the CCCE but every community partner who throughout the week opened up their doors and took the time to bring us into the core of the work that they do. This would not have been possible without their support. I would also like to recognize the openness and intentionality with which each of my team members engaged in our various projects this week, from waking up early to drive to Cub to going grocery shopping and making meals. It was an exhausting, at times physically and mentally demanding time, but it was made enjoyable by everyone’s genuine curiosity and collaboration.”

Alternative Spring Breaks are just one piece of Carleton’s intimate and often lasting partnerships with community organizations. For example, Sharing Our Roots recruits Carleton work-study employees, summer interns, and volunteers (such as Lillian Berets ‘23, whose comps is about Sharing Our Roots). The NCEC Food Shelf is staffed by CCCE Food and Environmental Justice Fellows and receives fresh food from the student-run Food Recovery Network. The SMSC Organics Recycling Facility is the final destination for most of Carleton’s compostable waste, where it is recycled as highly nutritious fertilizer and mulch. Many of these organizations also team up with Carleton faculty to create ACE courses like English 265: News Stories, in which students practice journalistic skills by covering news and topics chosen by local organizations such as Curbside Compost Collective and Sharing Our Roots, as well as Studio Art 230: Ceramic Throwing, the class responsible for Empty Bowls and raising tens of thousands of dollars for local food shelves every year.

Are you a student who wants to get involved with Alternative Spring Break? Join us next year! Applications for trip leaders and participants go live over the winter, and we’d love to see you apply! Please reach out to Danielle Trajano (dtrajano@carleton.edu) with any questions.