For many students, spring break is a time to travel, go home to their families or relax and enjoy a week off from school, but for a select few it means lending a helping hand in New Orleans.
The Alternative Spring Break program at Cal State Long Beach sends students to New Orleans once a year during spring break. Students then help rebuild a community that continues to suffer from Hurricane Katrina 12 years later.
Students of all majors and years are invited to apply for the program during the fall semester and approximately 90 students apply every year. However, only 30 applicants are chosen for the trip itself. The adjoining classes are taken in the spring semester.
Alfred Pallarca, a political science graduate student from CSULB, was part of the program in spring of 2015.
Pallarca said he and his peers talked to many people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina in different ways.
“They either lost a family member, lost a home, or lost everything,” he said. “It’s a lot different when you’re there than just reading about it.”
He mentioned that the class is different when it comes to getting to know classmates.
“Each semester you take a class and you get to know a few of your classmates, but this is so much different because you actually get to travel with the people you go to class with and you really get to know them,” he said.
After being accepted to the program, a fee of $325 is paid by the student, which covers air and ground transportation, food and lodging.
For the first time, a second class called Politics of Community Responsive Forensic Science was added to the program this year and will be taught by forensics professor Elana Quinones-Conant.
This year is Quinones’ first year in the program.
In previous years, students were offered only one course called University 300, or Politics of Disaster, taught by English professor Dennis Lopez.
Lopez said that in Politics of Disaster, students learn about the effects of Hurricane Katrina and how it affected New Orleans and the rest of the U.S.
Steven Tataje, a junior criminal justice major participating in the Alternative Spring Break, said that his expectations for this trip are mostly to gain knowledge of the history and culture of New Orleans to further understand how Hurricane Katrina impacted the community.
“Even though Katrina happened over 10 years ago, New Orleans is still affected by it today because there is a lot to still be fixed up,” Tataje said.
Students also learn about the history and culture of New Orleans prior to the trip.
Lopez explained that the class discusses the social, historical and political aspect of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He added that the class also examines how inequality and racism caused disaster relief responses to fail.
In addition to participating in educational activities, the students partner with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild homes in the city, according to Lopez.
Quinones said that the university advertised to faculty on campus that there was interest in the creation of an additional Alternative Spring Break Program. She then submitted a proposal for her program concept and was accepted.
“My course teaches forensic science and has students study different forensic investigations that range from the 1800s till present day that have specifically occurred in New Orleans,” Quinones said.
“We dissect [those cases] from a criminal justice and general public scientific standpoint. Sort of a 360 degree investigation on forensics.”
Quinones added that once in New Orleans, students break off into groups and have to design a forensics science experiment.
Melissa Merlos, senior child development and family life education major, is currently enrolled in the forensics class and, along with her group, will be teaching an eighth-grade class about forensics.
“I think this program will benefit both the community of New Orleans and us students because we get to see the reality of how people are living in a different state that was affected by a natural disaster,” Merlos said.
They plan go to different middle schools and hope to inspire children to learn about science by allowing them to see a practical application of what they are currently learning in school and how it applies to forensic science.
“At the same time, we help the community by encouraging kids to gain an interest in science,” Quinones said.
Merlos said she hopes to learn what children’s lives are like in New Orleans and be able to get to know them to see how different their lives are like from life in Southern California.
“It’s really nice that [through education] we’re contributing to the rebuilding of the community,” Merlos said.
Quinones said that the program is an excellent opportunity for students because they are able to not only learn something, but are also able to apply their knowledge into a community service setting.
“I’m really excited about it and it’s been going really great so far,” Quinones said. “My expectations are that my students get inspired to become mentors in their own field or major.”
Students leave on March 26 and return April 1.
Those interested in applying, should visit the Student Life and Development office located in the University Student Union room 215 or email Brett.Waterfield@csulb.edu.