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Alternative spring break

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For UW students involved in the Pipeline Project, spring break means teaching in classrooms across Washington. Take a deep dive into two schools where students serve.

Huskies are serving communities all over the state through the UW Pipeline Project’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. In 2017, this program received additional funding from our generous sponsors, whose underwriting support of the Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World campaign is expanding student experiences like this one throughout the academic year. Read on to find out how last year’s ASB participants inspired — and were inspired by — students in rural Washington schools.

Standing in front of the Brewster Middle School sixth grade science class, University of Washington junior Meili Powell poses a question: “What kinds of wildlife do you see in your town?”

“Coyotes!” “Birds!” “Deer!” students exclaim one after another, and Powell writes each answer on the whiteboard behind her. “Great examples! And why should we care about wildlife?” This time the students pause, pondering possible answers. A student seated at a desk in the middle of the room raises her hand: “Because they live here in Brewster, too!”

Powell and three of her peers trade tanning for teaching for a week each March, heading to the small town of Brewster, Washington, as part of the ASB program. Since 2001, more than 700 UW undergraduates have volunteered in schools across Washington state; this year, 60 Huskies spread out among 14 rural and tribal communities from the Olympic Peninsula to Eastern Washington.

Meili Powell / Junior

History / Early Childhood & Family Studies

Spring Break opened my eyes

2:10 / play interview

Meili: Meili Powell, major: Early Childhood & Family Studies and history with a minor in education.

Three years ago, I saw a poster in Mary Gates Hall highlighting Alternative Spring Break, and heard about a couple people who have gone on it. And as someone who is interested in going into the field of education and involved in various educational access programs on campus, I was compelled, as it seemed like a unique teaching opportunity.

However, going to Brewster for my first year, spending a week there getting to know students, getting to know the community members, and building the foundation for relationships, I realized that Alternative Spring Break was way more than that. And so, three years later, that is what has compelled me to keep going back and building on those initial connections that I made three years ago.

In general, as someone who grew up in Seattle, it’s also been not only a unique teaching opportunity, but a really valuable learning opportunity. I guess just in general, realizing how different student experiences are, community experiences are throughout the state, being involved with various educational access programs on campus, and realizing the racial and regional inequities in the region here, going on Environmental Alternative Spring Break also opened my eyes to educational opportunity gaps within the state.

This past year, especially, one of the best moments was, we had the opportunity to get involved with a new initiative Brewster was doing called Citizenship Schools. I worked with a parent who was working on understanding the citizenship civics test.

And after going through and talking for about an hour, I realized that two of the students I had been working with are her children, and she talked about how her children talked about how great the experience was at home, so it meant a lot that these students were taking these experiences that we were sharing inside the classroom and applying and talking about it with their family members outside of the classroom.

Ann Margaret Stompro / Junior

Environmental Science and Resource Management

I really wanted to break down barriers

1:09 / play interview

Ann Margaret: My name is Ann Margaret Stompro, and I’m majoring in environmental science.

I signed up for Environmental Alternative Spring Break because, the first week of school I was walking around and there were all the tables for the clubs and activities going on around school, and I saw the poster for this program. I walked by at first, and then I was like, “Wait, that would be pretty cool. That sounds like what I like.”

So I go back there, and it’s teaching environmental science. And that was perfect for me because I’m really passionate about environmental science and I really want to teach, so it was a good combination of the things that I’m very interested in.

I also really like that we were going to rural schools and tribal schools, and I thought that was just a really good thing for the community.

Something I really wanted was to get kids excited about science because I’m excited about science, and I know sometimes it can be boring to people or they think they’re not smart enough, but I just want to break those barriers down and be like, it’s really fun, and you can do it, everyone can do science.

In apple country, the pace of life is a little different. At any given time during the day, a few cars roll down Main Street before parking in front of mom-and-pop shops, while children play near the banks of the Columbia River. “Brewster is very rural, and I knew that the students didn’t have a lot of opportunities to leave the community and see the rest of the world,” explains Lupe Ledesma, a former counselor at Brewster High School. “So through ASB, I thought we could bring the world to them.”

So through ASB, I thought we could
bring the world to them.– Lupe Ledesma, former counselor at Brewster High School


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Situated at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers in north central Washington, Brewster is surrounded by rolling hills and acres of apple orchards.

Many migrant workers moved to the area, and today about 72 percent of the town’s 2,300 residents are Latino. The kids from the migrant families are inquisitive and motivated, with dreams of becoming marine biologists, chefs and veterinarians. And through ASB, the UW students bolster the belief that they can make those dreams a reality.

Utilizing a mix of classroom lessons, small group discussions and outdoor activities (the clear favorite), the UW students spent the week teaching the sixth graders about environmental science. This year, the curriculum was based on the theme “The land we live in,” pertaining to the natural habitat in Brewster.

Brewster sits at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers.

About 72 percent of Brewster’s 2,300 residents are Latino.

UW junior Kat Schaffer works with sixth graders at Brewster Elementary.

Neat rows of apple trees begin to bud in an orchard on the outskirts of Brewster.

Environmental Science and Resource Management student Natalie Gray helps students work through a question.

Junior Ann Margaret Stompro leads a discussion about wildlife ecology.

While the lessons aim to instill an interest in science, their teacher, Susan Varrelman, says that the most meaningful part of the week is the one-on-one interactions between her students and the undergraduates. “They’re very high-achieving kids, who vocalize their interests already,” she says. “Having the UW students here to talk with them is great to help them start thinking about how they can achieve those goals.”

This year, the UW students also served the larger Brewster community by volunteering at the local Boys & Girls Club and helping students’ parents prepare for the U.S. citizenship test. “Coming back here each year and experiencing what’s new, like this citizenship class, is great,” says Powell. “I love getting to build on the community connections I’ve made in past years, while making new connections with our current class. Those are the reasons I keep coming back here with ASB.”


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Thirty miles north of Brewster, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, is the town of Omak, where another group of ASB volunteers work with students at Paschal Sherman Indian School (PSIS). Tucked away in the dry forests overlooking the town, the UW students keep time with the kids.

While the Brewster group curated a science-based curriculum, the UW students at PSIS bring a literacy arts lesson plan. Over the course of the week, they help fourth through eighth graders write, illustrate and bind books along the theme “There’s no place like home.”

For PSIS students, home is the Colville Indian Reservation. Twelve American Indian and Alaska Native tribes — known collectively as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation — reside on the land, and the school is infused with their culture and traditions, including lessons in Interior Salish, the regional American Indian language.

The week in Omak flies by in a flurry of glue sticks, markers and construction paper, and by Friday, colorful books cover the dorm where the UW students stay. The program culminates in a celebration, where students proudly read their completed books aloud to classmates and teachers.

The books include illustrations of iconic Omak features, from the shores of Omak Lake to scenes of the Omak Stampede, and dedications go out to parents, siblings and close friends. Fifth grade teacher Larry Witt began keeping a “library” of the books over the years, where current and even past students return to re-read their work. “The kids take such pride in their books,” he says. “They fondly remember the project, and hold those books dear.”

Omak was one of the first four towns to host ASB, and Witt — who’s been at PSIS for 42 years, and, incidentally, began his career as a collegiate volunteer — has worked with each UW cohort. From a learning perspective, he’s thrilled by the possibilities ASB creates for each UW volunteer.

“In the course of a week, you watch someone realize that they’re important in a kid’s life, that they’re making an impact in a kid’s life,” he says. “It’s beautiful to watch them be motivated and see the growth that occurs in just a week’s time.”

Seylah / Student

Paschal Sherman Indian School

I dedicated my book to my mom

0:33 / play interview

I’m writing about me and my mom going to the barter fair. And whenever we went there, we brought our money, and we bought a lot of things a got all dressed up in tie-dye stuff. And after that we realized that we spent our money and then they said that we could exchange for shiny things, and we were shocked! That’s a good memory, and I want to dedicate that book to my mom.

It’s beautiful to watch them be motivated and see the growth that occurs in just a week’s time.– Larry Witt, PSIS teacher

Jovan / Student

Paschal Sherman Indian School

I like the small classes. It’s very good for learning

0:30 / play interview

Jovan: My name’s Jovan. My book is about my grandparents because I love them so much and how I used to live down in California and how it will always be my hometown.

Question: And what’s your favorite thing about going to PSIS?

Jovan: The small classes. And more one-on-one, and it’s very good for learning. I like to play basketball. Basketball is my favorite sport!

Question: Who’s your favorite basketball player?

Jovan: Steph Curry.

“I’d never really experienced American Indian culture before,” says UW junior Jennie Cockrel. “Getting to be in this community for a week opened me up to that culture’s strengths.”

Before Cockrel, a social work major, went to Omak with ASB, she’d compared different areas of her field to specialize in. But after spending time with the classes and community members, a door opened: “I started to really consider working with American Indian and Alaska Native populations and child welfare when I graduate,” she says. “This definitely provided an experience to build on from here.”

Sienna / Student

Paschal Sherman Indian School

I like to draw for fun

0:27 / play interview

Question: What’s your book about?

Sienna: It’s called, “A Visit With My Mom,” and I’m writing it about all the things that we did the last time we saw her. We went to the library, park, and mom bought us apples, chocolate chip cookies, and pop.

Question: What do you like to do in your free time?

Sienna: I like to draw.

I’ve seen how powerful the impact has been on both sides.– Christine Stickler, director, Pipeline Project

Over the years, Christine Stickler, director of the Pipeline Project, has heard countless stories of success: There’s the student from Neah Bay who was inspired to become a teacher by ASB volunteers. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the UW, he’s now a second-grade teacher in back in his hometown. There’s the young girl from Harrah, who was told she could go to college for the first time by a UW student. Today, she’s a UW undergraduate, and has been involved with ASB since her freshman year.

Looking to the future, Stickler hopes to expand the ASB curriculum beyond environmental science and literacy arts to include other disciplines. She also plans to extend the program into a year-long experience; UW students would meet with a class at the start of school, keep in touch throughout the year, head back to the class for spring break, and finally bring the young students to the UW campus in June.

Stickler emphasizes that while the program is a tremendous experience for UW students, the heart of ASB is forming meaningful connections across Washington state. “I’ve seen how powerful the impact has been on both sides,” she says. ASB actively changes schools and communities, agrees Ledesma, “and it truly breaks down barriers between different cultures.”

Shoah / Student

Paschal Sherman Indian School

Jovan’s grandpa is a good P.E. teacher

1:21 / play interview

Shoah: I’m Shoah. I’m writing about bowling, ‘cause I think it’s really fun to play.

Question: What’s your favorite thing about going to PSIS?

Shoah: Probably P.E. Jovan’s grandpa is a good P.E. teacher. When football’s going I like to watch Denver, Green Bay and Seattle.

Question: Who’s your favorite football team?

Shoah: Denver! It’ll take all of ‘em over.

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