Alternative Spring Break: A Fun Way to Make a Difference

It was her first time in San Diego. As Saori Shinozaki, fourth-year international student, sat in the van, she felt a burst of anxiety and excitement.

Other students chattered around her, but Shinozaki sat gazing at the scenery — it was so beautiful, lush green trees passing in a blur on one side while the aquamarine ocean glistened on the other.

The van soon came to a halt and she found herself completely surrounded by forest. There were no shops, no fancy houses, only a few turkeys running around. She had never been anywhere quite like this in Japan.

Spurred on by another international friend’s experience on Alternative Winter Break, Shinozaki decided to apply for the week-long program.

Like other applicants, she filled out a form but, afraid that her language skills were weak, Shinozaki asked friends to look over her application and correct any errors. Following the paper application, she also participated in a group interview — no easy feat for a student whose native language is not English.

Shinozaki was particularly interested in participating in the Alternative Break program titled “Restoring the Lands,” where students would be able to volunteer at the La Jolla Indian Reservation.

“I had studied about Native Americans at my home university and I was interested in learning about the culture and problems of the people,” Shinozaki said. “I also really wanted to do something about it while I was in the U.S.”

Having been accepted into the program, Shinozaki attended orientations that would prepare her for the trip.

In one meeting, a guest speaker from a neighboring reservation visited the Center for Service and Action to speak about his experience. Shinozaki was shocked when the speaker referenced the high rate of suicide found at the reservations.

This theme of violence in Native American reservations was noted later during the trip. During one of the days, the students worked with an activist group that raised awareness on violence prevention.

Shinozaki learned that rape and domestic violations against females are higher in the Native American population as compared to other ethnic minorities.

This past Sunday, the group organized a “walk for honor, walk for justice” where they closed down Highway 76 (which runs directly through the reservation) and allowed residents to walk on their land which lasts about 2 miles. The Alternative Break members also planted native plants like sage and assisted in environmental programs.

In working with members of the Luiseño Indians, Shinozaki came to respect their culture and traditions. She was amazed by the Native Americans’ focus on the environment.

They had programs to build parks for children and other ways of providing water for the community. She also learned how the community went to great lengths to preserve their heritage, even offering language classes to adults.

“The people were so nice, they welcomed us with open arms,” Shinozaki said. “They never hesitated to answer our questions and they had such an understanding of their own identity. They knew about their culture, who they are as a people.”

Despite the rewards of working with the Luiseño Indians, Shinozaki encountered some cultural challenges on the trip. In the program, she was the only international student, and it was the first time in the year when she did not have the means to  speak to Japanese friends or family members.

By the end of the week, though, she felt more comfortable and developed a rapport with many new American friends.

Shinozaki believes that the Alternative Spring Break trip has been one of the highlights of her study abroad experience and hopes to apply it back home. She believes that the Japanese should learn more about their own ethnic groups.

“When I told my family I was going to a reservation, they thought that I was going to live in a tepee and wear bird feathers,” Shiozaki said. “I want to break stereotypes, to stimulate people’s interests in discussing these ethnic minorities.”

To other international students, she advises them to be open-minded and to take advantage of these opportunities.

“Remember to challenge yourself, just try and jump in. Don’t be afraid.”