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Students volunteer to work at Knoxville Botanical Garden

VOLbreaks Leave Lasting Impact on Students

Students traveled to Austin, TX, for a VOLbreak focusing on immigration.

Students traveled to Austin, TX, for a VOLbreak focusing on immigration.

Since 1993, hundreds of UT students participating in VOLbreaks have traveled around the country and the world to serve communities and gain new perspectives on the world outside of UT. This immersive community service experience has expanded the thinking of students year after year when they think about and address serious social issues. After having a VOLbreak experience, participants often seek to continue their active citizenship on campus, in their own communities, and in partnership with other communities.

“Through the VOLbreaks program, we seek to create meaningful experiences not only for the communities being served but also for the students participating on the alternative break trips,” said María Martínez, coordinator in the Jones Center for Leadership and Service. “Therefore, one of the main missions of the program is to ensure that participants are purposefully engaged in creating and developing valuable skills and competencies. Through attending a VOLbreak, students gain various skills such as effective communication, critical thinking, and cultural competency.”

Senior mechanical engineering major Brandon Solsbee has participated in several VOLbreaks during his time as a student on topics including immigration and education. On his most recent break to Asheville, NC, his group covered environmental justice and sustainability.

“Our goal was to learn about movements and organizations in the region,” says Solsbee. “We helped clear a trail, weather-proof trailers to reduce utility costs, and picked up trash at an illegal dumpsite.”

Students such as Solsbee are learning more about serving their local community and are learning to become more active in their roles as citizens in communities.

“Active citizens are individuals who prioritize community in their values and life choices,” said Martínez. “They continuously engage with social issues that matter to them and the people around them. They acknowledge that social justice is a lifelong process that takes constant reflection, learning and unlearning, and action.”

Image demonstrating the Active Citizen Continuum

VOLbreaks utilizes the Active Citizen Continuum (ACC), a model that allows participants to identify their current stage and move along the continuum as they move through the continuum, from a member to a volunteer to a conscientious citizen and finally to an active citizen.

“Within each VOLbreak, participants can be in many spots within the ACC,” said Martínez. “Sometimes, participants are already well-versed on these social issues and engage with local non-profits and community partners. Other times, they know very little about the theme and hope to learn more. During the VOLbreak, students talk about ways they can incorporate what they’ve learned into their lives and continue to do the work even after their trip is over.”

Graph of pre-Vol Breaks survey responses

When asked to indicate a highlight of their VOLbreak experience, one participant stated, “Involving myself in the Knoxville communities and learning about the Knoxville community. This made me realize that I need to be active in my hometown community.

Another stated their favorite moment was, “Doing community service with my VolBreaks group! I grew much closer to them and learned more about the organizations I want to continue to partner with in the future”.

The majority of students surveyed after the most recent VOLbreaks trip felt confident in their ability to explain the importance of serving others to create and maintain a thriving community and will actively pursue involvement in social issues or community service now.

Graph of post-Vol Break survey responses

VOLbreaks offers students an alternative perspective to the one they may have been able to see before a trip, often showing them how society can impact individuals negatively, and how active citizens can have an impact in undoing those systems.

Students and learning partners travel across the country

Students and learning partners travel across the country to learn about various social issues and serve with different communities.

“Attending a VOLbreak can help students feel connected to their UT community while also gaining awareness of their ability to create positive, sustainable change in the areas they care about,” said Martínez.

“These trips have made me cognizant of the interwoven systems of oppression that keep people from succeeding, but I’ve also learned that for every injustice there are local efforts rising to try to combat these injustices” echoed Solsbee. “I am so grateful that a program like this is able to exist, and it is such a good opportunity for people to make the most of their time off during the semester.”

Contact: Alyssa Seisser (