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March 29, 2004

Students lend a hand in Mexico during spring break

By Louise Donahue

Spring break just isn't what it used to be. For 51 UCSC students, a spring break trip to Mexico meant building a house one day, and repairing roofs, digging trenches, installing toilets and showers and painting for another two days.

UPDATE: After this story was posted March 29, news of the students’ efforts caught the attention of the Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism, GO SERV, and the students' project has been featured on the GOSERV web site. The
students will receive a GO SERV Spotlight award (See press release) May 25 at UCSC’s Volunteer Recognition Awards Ceremony.

Photo of students working

Students work together on a house, top photo, and level the ground in preparation for a cement pour in the Baja town of Tecate. Top photo: Luke Botzheim; photo above, Maria Mazzenga

The volunteers also found time to work with the local children on art projects and play Frisbee and soccer with them.

Instead of lounging around in a hotel or motel, the students slept on the floor of a community center—with no indoor plumbing until they installed it themselves.

Despite the lack of amenities, the students said their time in Tecate, Mexico, was better than the typical spring break trip.

“I think this is more fun. This is so much more rewarding. We’re making our mark on Mexico, and they’re making a mark on us,” said Jennifer Low, a first-year student at College Ten. "It's one of the best experiences I've had. I don't learn as much in a quarter as I have in the past two days," she said from Mexico.

The students—mostly from College Nine and College Ten--participated in an unusual project that was part work program and part cultural exchange. Arranged by the nonprofit Corazón organization, the students got to know the townspeople by working alongside future homeowners and other local residents.

The Corazón houses are one large room with plumbing. “This is fantastic compared with what the families were using. It’s a real step up,” said Abbey Asher, service-learning coordinator for College Nine and College Ten, one of three staff members who accompanied the students.

"It's very rewarding," said Margot Brown, a first-year student in College Nine. "I feel like I’m getting more out of it than the people I'm helping. It's benefiting both sides."

Several of the students on the trip are bilingual, and for some, the trip had additional meaning. “I came because I wanted a firsthand experience with poverty,” said Rosa Contreras, a third-year student at College Nine. “I also wanted to come back to my roots because this is how my parents lived, and to realize how much I take for granted every day.”

The UCSC trip was unusual in a few ways. Corazón’s work with volunteers usually involves smaller groups of students, church groups, and others from southern California, who make short trips and build a home on Saturdays.

Money for the longer trip required months of intensive fundraising. Students helping staff members do gardening work earned $500, and students' friends and families chipped in, with each student raising a minimum of $100. Contributions from the colleges, resident adviser funds, Student Affairs, and student government also were crucial in raising the $15,000 needed for the trip.

Rawbe Guzman of the Chancellor's Undergraduate Internship Program was a driving force behind the project, said Asher, who worked with students from College Nine and College Ten last year on a spring break community service program with Barrios Unidos, a local nonprofit.

Asher said the trip to Mexico may become an annual event. “This alternative spring break exceeded all my expectations. The students were able to experience firsthand the benefits of international service; of working hand-in-hand with a community for the betterment of that community,” Asher said. “I hope we can make this trip an option for future students."

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