Students change course from traditional spring break

By Alison Hewitt
Originally posted in UCLA Today

When spring break begins this weekend, some UCLA students are packing bathing suits and heading to the beach, but other Bruins are packing their laptops for extended study or grubby work clothes to restore a bayou in New Orleans.

Many UCLA students are choosing an alternative Spring Break and embracing the idea that vacation is an ideal time for volunteer service or extra brain work. 

UCLA’s student-run Community Service Commission (CSC) has organized volunteer projects that will send roughly 50 undergraduates across the country to perform service work with nonprofits. About half a dozen UCLA graduate students will head to the La Kretz Center Field Station in the Santa Monica Mountains where UCLA professor Brad Shaffer will lead a five-day genomics workshop to help students apply their research to aid in conservation planning.

Sophomore Ellen Lomonico will be happily working in New Orleans with about a dozen other UCLA students to rebuild a house for a local teacher, do conservation work in the wetlands and learn about local nonprofits.

“It’s a great way to see the city while also helping others,” said Lomonico, who volunteered for this CSC service project. “I volunteer on a regular basis, teaching at a high school and elementary school, but nothing as adventurous as this trip.”

Other students on a CSC volunteer project will spend five days with nonprofits serving at-risk youth in downtown Los Angeles and living with families in South L.A. Still others have opted to restore natural habitat with the Catalina Island Conservancy or work in Utah at the country’s largest no-kill animal shelter, said student and CSC Commissioner Anees Hasnain, who helped organize the trips.

“A lot of students really want to do something meaningful with their spring break, and this offers them a taste of volunteer service and a chance to travel,” she said.

For some Bruins, the action will happen closer to home — at a field station in the Santa Monica Mountains, run by the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, part of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. A group of 15 graduate students from around the world, including five from UCLA, will live at the station and learn conservation genomics methods. The workshop will also help students connect with the center’s partners: practitioners from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Shaffer, director of the center.

Biologists from the La Kretz Center's agency partners will kick off the program, driving home the message that conservation researchers need to get involved with land managers from the start.

“During the workshop, the students will get hands-on experience with a couple of new tools and hear from experts about how you collect and interpret data and the inferences that you can make,” Shaffer said. “They’ll also be introduced to practitioners in the field who they can collaborate with.”

“It’s aimed at the students,” he noted, “but I think the rest of us in the room will learn a ton, too.”