Life is funny. Time and time again, I am often astounded by the fact that some of the most meaningful opportunities and experiences in my life are those that, had things played out a little differently, I might never have even considered or been a part of. One such example is the Alternate Break trip I participated in over my most recent spring break.
What I find most shocking and unsettling is how easy it could have been to not have gone on this trip. Had I said yes to backpacking with friends in the Andes, or to lounging on the beach in the Dominican Republic with my freshman year hall, or to simply spending a nice week home in California with my lovable pooches, this trip would have been just another addition to a bucket full of things that almost happened but didn’t. But instead, a single flyer, unceremoniously stuffed into my hand on Locust Walk months before, was the catalyst that propelled me to pursue a trip I knew little about, to work for a week with people I had never met, to go to a place that I had quite frankly never heard of. And that ended up making a world of difference to me.
At this point I should probably get into what Alternate Spring Break is all about. Service-minded students from all walks of life at Penn get together for their spring break, participating in socially impactful volunteer activities by day while breaking bread with each other by night. And in this short span of five to six days, something clicks within the group: strangers open up, experiences are shared and created, and friendships are forged. By the end of the week, people leave with a sense of grounding, meaning, and new connections.
That was exactly the experience I had on my trip. Myself and 13 other former strangers embarked on a six-hour drive to Lynchburg, VA, where we had the honor and pleasure of working with Lynchburg’s Habitat for Humanity chapter. During our time there, we contributed to the construction of two separate houses by working alongside Habitat volunteers, explored the history of a city critically important in the Civil War era, and learned more than a bit about each other along the way.
Most inspiring was the sense of community that enveloped us the moment we set foot into the city. I found it particularly touching how dedicated these volunteers were. Each piece of wood was hammered into place with the utmost of care. Every task was completed by the volunteers as if the house were their own. And no matter the circumstances, all approached their work with a sense of optimism and a smile. It was truly a humbling experience to work amongst these fine people, and left me with a sense of hope and grounding that I am truly grateful for.
When the work day was over, our Penn contingent made some wonderful memories together. We shared our varied backgrounds, told stories and jokes about really large sea birds, cooked far too much pasta together nightly, made laughable mistakes, and most importantly, visited Foamhenge (a life-sized replica of Stonehenge. Made out of foam. I know, right?). It was here, during these memorable nights, that I realized how sorely I needed and valued the sort of community that the Alternate Spring Break trips had brought to me. It was here that 14 of us, former strangers, really came together and became a family. It was here where I had one of the most unique experiences of my entire life.
In the last three and a half years of my time in M&T, I have been blessed with the opportunity to sample vastly different fields of study, explore Philadelphia, and seek unconventional interests, experiences, and communities. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never say no to anything, because you never know when the odd flyer on Locust Walk might change things up.
Alaric, from Hacienda Heights, California, is a member of the M&T Class of 2015. He studies Electrical Engineering within Penn Engineering and Marketing, Management, and Entrepreneurship & Innovation in the Wharton School.