UW News

March 23, 2015

For Alternative Spring Break students, a cultural experience close to home

News and Information

Years ago, a fellow educator made a comment that stuck in Christine Stickler’s head. University students don’t need to travel to a foreign country for spring break to immerse themselves in another culture, she said — they can do that right here in Washington state.

That observation led Stickler to launch the UW’s Alternative Spring Break program, which sends out teams of undergraduates to small rural and tribal communities throughout Washington to work with elementary and middle school students on literacy and environmental projects.

Alexandra Lynn Zepeda, middle, works with students at Forks Elementary on a literacy project.

Alexandra Lynn Zepeda, middle, works with students at Forks Elementary on a literacy project.The Pipeline Project

The program is part of The Pipeline Project, a multipronged initiative that connects UW undergrads with local K-12 students for educational and service projects. Alternative Spring Break started in 2000 and there was immediate interest from UW students across a range of departments.

“I only had space for 20 students, and I probably had 20 or 30 responses in a day or two,” said Stickler, The Pipeline Project’s director. “I knew I was touching a chord for students.”

This week, 72 UW students will be at 14 sites from La Push, on the coast, to Wapato, a town of about 5,000 in the Yakima Valley, working with around 700 students in total. Five-member teams at nine sites will help students create books about themselves, while teams at four other sites will lead kids through environmental projects. At Neah Bay, a team will be working with students on a yearlong documentary film project that focuses on the history and culture of the Makah people.

UW students stay with host families, in student dorms and in accommodations on tribal lands. There’s no cost to participate, but students fundraise to help cover costs.

UW senior Alexandra Lynn Zepeda participated in the program last year and went to Forks, a town of about 3,500. By the end of the week, she said, her team had formed bonds with the third-graders they were paired with.

“You get to know them really well and they just love you,” she said. “They’re so welcoming.”

Read about a first-generation college student and volunteer preschool tutor who’s participating in Alternative Spring Break.


Zepeda enjoyed the experience so much that she signed up again this year, choosing Curlew, a tiny community in the northeast part of the state. The 21-year-old grew up in Tacoma and said she values the opportunity to learn about communities large and small.

“A big part of the kind of educator I want to be is being culturally competent and open to new experiences and backgrounds,” said Zepeda, an education major who is heading off this summer for a Teach for America position in Detroit.

“I’m from a city, and it’s interesting to see the dynamics and assets that small towns have. There’s so much you can learn from these communities.”

Stickler said UW students often describe the experience as “transformative” and say it gave them a richer understanding of Washington’s diversity.

“A lot of students say, ‘I’ve been looking for an experience like this, something that would take me outside of the university and let me learn about another community and another culture in the state,” she said. “So many students tell me afterward that they’ll never think abut the rest of the state in the same way again.”

And while the experience is intense, Stickler said, there are moments of lightheartedness — like the night the fire department in one of the communities burned down an old house as a training exercise.

“The whole town came out with lawn chairs and coolers to watch,” she said. “That was the entertainment. The students had a blast.”