Spring Breakers: A look at three spring break experiences
Earlier this month, Rice students had a chance to put down their books for a week and take a much needed break. Here’s a look at what some owls did.
Before spring break, Najah Hussain did not consider herself especially political.
“Last midterm election was my first time voting, and I kind of realized that in order to make decisions about who you’re voting for, you have to be very informed on different issues,” Hussain, a Hanszen College sophomore, said.
Hussain’s realization led her to apply for a 2019 Alternative Spring Break — the Center for Civic Leadership’s education and advocacy program, where groups of students unpack the complexities of a social justice issue in a new community. Hussain’s group, led by Baker College junior Rebecca Francis and Jones College sophomore Brendan Wong, traveled to the nation’s capital to learn about voter rights and mobilization.
Baker junior Allison Yelvington applied for a similar reason.
“I’ve always wanted to be more politically engaged, but I just didn’t know how to. I didn’t know what was going to activate or spark that in me to a point that would change behavior,” she said.
Their group consisted of 12 students in total who stayed in an Airbnb in Maryland for eight nights. During the week, they entered Washington, D.C. and met with a variety of organizations working on solutions for issues related to voting rights such as redistricting, voter suppression and Washington, D.C. statehood. In most of the meetings, which were with groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Brennan Center for Justice, Yelvington said they listened and learned from the work the organizations were doing.
One of Yelvington’s favorite meetings was with the Campaign Legal Center, which after explaining the work they do to achieve voting rights for felons, gave the ASB participants the opportunity to phonebank to help their cause. The participants called people who had been previously convicted of a felony but now had a right to vote, informed them of that right and explained to those who were previously unaware how they could register.
“That was a really cool experience, to get to actually make those calls,” Yelvington said.
Aside from the educational aspects of the trip, both Hussain and Yelvington said they formed close relationships with members of the whole group — whom neither of them knew well before break.
“We were extremely silly and always laughing,” Yelvington said. “I really feel like I made 11 new friends.”
Hussain admired how willing everyone on the trip was to speak up to experts, especially when they spoke to staffers of Texas representatives on Capitol Hill.
“They were just so badass,” she said. “They were asking really difficult questions, and they just really didn’t back down.”
Both Hussain and Yelvington said they plan to get involved with the issues they learned about on the trip. For Yelvington, it’s ensuring an accurate count during the 2020 census — which she said is critical to voter rights for its implications in redistricting. Hussain plans to call her representatives more and potentially get involved with a campaign next year.
This trip, Yelvington said, was the spark she needed to change her own behavior.
“I feel like this trip has really given me the information and the change in mindset to want to be more civically engaged,” she said.
Taking a Breath of Fresh Air
Noor Osmani’s favorite moment this break came one afternoon after she and nine other students had hiked about eight miles, lugging their essentials in large backpacks. The forecast that day said it would thunderstorm, so the group arrived at their camp early. It didn’t rain for hours, so the hikers had ample time to hang out and goof off.
“At one point there was a vegetable-off, where we had to act like vegetables,” Osmani said. “I was an optimistic eggplant.”
Osmani, a Hanszen junior, is a trip leader for Rice Outdoor Programs and Education, or ROPE. She and Jones senior Sarah Asson co-led a spring break backpacking trip, where they guided five undergraduates and three graduates on a hike through northern Alabama on the Pinhoti Trail, which is in the southern Appalachian mountains.
Prior to break, Osmani had led some day trips and one three-day excursion.
“I felt like leading spring break was the next big step for me,” she said. “Having a group for a week is a long time that actually allows for you to bond, which is really rewarding.”
This bonding was especially meaningful, Osmani said, because she didn’t know so many of the trip’s participants before break.
“My last breaks I went with people I already knew and I came back and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to see them for a little bit, I spent so much time with them!’” Osmani said. “But I feel like this break I went with people I didn’t know at all, and I came back and was like, ‘I hope I see them really frequently, because they’re really cool.’”
Although she didn’t know most participants, Osmani said she grew very close to her co-leader, Asson, leading up to the break.
“We’ve been planning for months for this trip, looking at the water, setting the trail, making the menu,” Osmani said. “I feel like it was really rewarding to see. I felt like it was my baby.”
In addition to imitating an optimistic eggplant, Osmani said her favorite moments over break were reaching viewpoints.
“We just had really nice views,” Osmani recalled. “They were very vast, with rolling hills, very green, you could see the horizon and it was just very open. It’s just really rewarding to feel like you’ve been backpacking for so long and you’ve been carrying everything on your back, and this is why you do it. You get to see these amazing views and it’s so peaceful.”
Osmani said she felt these moments brought the group closer together.
“Sometimes the group would fall quiet when they were looking at these amazing views,” she said. “And it could be quiet, but also you know that everyone is kind of having their own special moment with nature and interpreting things for themselves. It was very cool to see everyone interacting with nature in their own way, but still as a group.”
That sort of introspection brought forth by nature, Osmani said, can put things into perspective — and she thinks everyone should do it at least once.
“Sometimes you get really caught up, at Rice especially, in the little things,” Osmani said. “Making sure you can bump your grade two points higher, or do something just a little bit better. When you go out and backpack, and it’s just you and your pack and nature, you’re like, ‘No, these things don’t really define me. There’s so much more to life, there’s so much I want to see.’ It’s so much more important to do things that are fulfilling, in whatever way you define that.”
Studying Cuban Culture On-Site
Diana De La Torre Pinedo and Katie Nguyen didn’t get to escape their professors over the vacation.
De La Torre Pinedo and Nguyen are enrolled in “A Revolution From Within: Trends in Cuban Culture,” and over spring break, the entire class and professor Luis Duno-Gottberg traveled to Cuba to conduct research. They spent the week talking to experts, locals and conducting research on post-revolution Cuban media.
De La Torre Pinedo, a Baker sophomore, said she’d wanted to travel to Cuba for a long time.
“I really didn’t know much about Cuba,” she said. “I really wanted to get past the capitalist propaganda that we’re usually taught in the United States and see what the people were like, what the culture was like and what the country itself was like.”
Nguyen, a Sid Richardson College freshman, developed an interest in Latin American studies earlier this year in her Freshman Intensive Writing Seminar, Brazil Modern: Art and Architecture Between the Nation and the Metropole.
“I’m super interested in how art and architecture can be a reflection of society and culture,” she said. “I’m especially interested in that in terms of Latin America, because it’s so complex [and] has that European influence, but also has these African and Indigenous cultures.”
The group started their break in Miami, where they spoke to Cuban-Americans before flying to Cuba and embarking on a cross-country roadtrip.
“It was a really interesting experience going from Miami, where we talked to people who were really anti-Fidel [Castro], and then we went to Cuba where we definitely had more of a moderate experience,” Nguyen said.
De La Torre Pinedo was surprised with how the Cuban people spoke about the 1959 revolution.
“A lot of the population is really grateful for the revolution,” she explained, “because the people who stayed are primarily people who recieved aid from the government. The people who left were very wealthy and lost their wealth, which was distributed among the poor.”
Both De La Torre Pinedo and Nguyen felt the trip balanced the academic element with a more personal travel experience. The students stayed with host families and had ample time to explore on their own. Nguyen often used the time to see live music and meet locals.
De La Torre Pinedo hopes she’ll have more opportunities like the one she got through this class.
“Learning about [Cuba] in context was such a mind-blowing thing,” she said. “I can learn about neoliberalism, but unless I’m making a connection to an actual society, I’m not really learning it. I think applying my knowledge to actual field work to actual, interacting with societies and communities, will be such a great way for me to learn material and to expand my academic pursuits.”
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