The National Survey of Alternative Breaks: Using Both Qualitative and Quantitative Research to Understand Immersive and Global Service-Learning Experiences

September 10, 2012

Elizabeth Niehaus, University of Maryland

Five years ago I had the good fortune to become involved in a research team at the University of Maryland – College Park, looking at the ways in which students make meaning of short-term immersion programs. Each member of our research team was a staff advisor or instructor for a different group of students travelling to a different state or country over spring break – three of these programs were service-learning focused Alternative Breaks, while one was a leadership focused short-term study abroad course. Employing multi-site case study methodology, we engaged in participant observations during the spring break programs, asked students to keep journals during the experience, and interviewed student participants after we returned to campus. The results of this project pointed to the huge impact these experiences can have on students – our participants returned to campus feeling like new people. They had an entirely new perspective on social issues or locations related to their trip, wanted to change their major or career plans, considered giving up cell phones and other technology they had enjoyed separating from while away, and tried to find ways to go back to the places they had been over spring break. At the same time, they felt that their friends and family at home had not changed, often causing conflict with their new perspectives and life plans.

The following year, another member of the research team and I conducted follow-up interviews with participants from one of the programs in the original study (the leadership focused study abroad course). We found that for some students, that study abroad experience was still influencing their lives. Two students had studied abroad for longer periods, one participated in an international mission rip, and another chose to do an internship with the Department of Homeland Security, all inspired by their initial study abroad experience. These students really felt that the experience had changed their lives in significant ways. For another group of students, though, the study abroad experience had faded into a nice memory – even though some of these students were the ones who had expressed the desire to make huge life changes immediately after the trip.

These two experiences made me reflect on the way we conduct research, and the questions that we ask, particularly when it comes to what I will call “immersive service-learning” experiences – those programs that take groups of students outside of their comfort zone, to a different city, state, or country, for a short period of time to participate full-time in a service-learning project. Immersive service-learning would include programs such as Alternative Breaks and many global/international service-learning experiences. Much of the research on immersive service-learning has focused on qualitative case studies, often of single programs at single institutions. Having been involved in one of these case studies myself (see paragraph 1!), I think they are incredibly valuable. The existing research has given us a deep understanding of what these experiences are like for students, and how they may encourage students’ learning and development. The fact that the research is almost exclusively based on case studies, though, did make me wonder how representative this research is of the broader phenomenon of immersive service-learning. Are these just particularly good examples of immersive service-learning? Are the students who chose to talk to researchers from those programs the ones who were more likely to have had a positive experience? How might a practitioner looking to create or improve an immersive service-learning experience use this research to guide practice?

A second question I had coming out of these two projects was about the limitations of short-term research on immersive service-learning experiences. I know from my own life that the Alternative Break programs that I did in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Columbus, Georgia, were instrumental in my learning and development, but a researcher trying to measure that impact would not have been able to do so until almost ten years after the experience! That impact also would have looked quite different immediately after I returned to campus, a year later, and ten years later. Yet, much of the research on immersive service-learning programs focuses on the immediate trip and post-trip experience; very little explores the long-term outcomes of these programs (one notable exception being Richard Kiely’s work on transformative learning through global service-learning in Nicaragua).

In order to address these gaps in the research, I decided to create the National Survey of Alternative Breaks (NSAB), a multi-institutional survey of students who participate in Alternative Break programs. I decided to focus on AB programs because they are concrete, defined experiences which tend to be organized in similar ways (while global service-learning more broadly can cover a wide variety of programs). I also thought that AB programs provided a perfect opportunity to explore differences between international and domestic experiences – I often hear people argue that international experiences are unnecessary when there is so much cultural diversity within the United States. Researchers have struggled to find ways to compare international and domestic experiences, as there are few programs that offer comparable experiences both within the US and abroad. Finally, I decided to focus on a large-scale, quantitative, survey approach to this project as it would allow me to take what we have learned from qualitative research and explore the broad applicability of those findings.

The NSAB currently consists of three phases. Phase 1, conducted in the spring of 2011, was a post-trip survey completed by over 2,000 students at almost 100 colleges and universities across the US. Phase 2, conducted in the spring of 2012, was a follow-up survey with those same students, one year after their initial AB experience. Over 500 students completed the Phase 2 survey. Phase 3, currently in progress, will consist of qualitative interviews with a subset of students who responded to both surveys. The purpose of Phase 3 is to dig more deeply into the long-term impact of the AB experience on students’ lives.

Data from the NSAB can help answer a number of important questions about Alternative Break programs, with applicability to similar programs such as global and domestic service-learning, diversity and leadership retreats, etc. Key questions being explored by the NSAB include:

  • To what extent and in what ways do AB experiences influence students’ lives, both immediately after the experience and over the long-term?
  • What specific factors within the AB experience facilitate these influences on students’ lives? What can practitioners do before, during, and (perhaps even more importantly) after the AB experience to encourage this long-term impact?
  • What, if any, differences are there between international and domestic AB experiences?

Initial findings from the NSAB are promising – students overwhelmingly report that their AB experience influences their lives in a number of ways, including encouraging them to volunteer and engage in advocacy, alter career plans to focus on helping others, focus future international travel on learning more about people and cultures, and consider applying for programs such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and Doctors without Borders. Key program characteristics related to these influences include the extent to which students are emotionally and physically challenged by the experience, their engagement with community members, and the frequency with which they write in individual journals. These findings can help guide practitioners working with AB programs, along with other immersive service-learning experiences.

Finally, in addition to the knowledge to be gained through the NSAB about AB and other immersive service-learning experiences, I think that the story of this project points to the importance of utilizing both qualitative and quantitative methods in service-learning research. As researchers, we often get caught up in one paradigm or the other, but in my experience, both make vital contributions to our understanding of complex phenomena, such as how students learn and develop as a result of service-learning experiences. Each paradigm also encourages researchers to ask different questions about a phenomenon, so if we can only think in one paradigm we are limited in the questions we even think to ask. The purpose of research in service-learning, and especially in the even newer area of global and immersive service-learning, is to improve practice to benefit students and community members. I think we have an obligation to utilize every tool at our disposal to do so.


Elizabeth Niehaus is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she recently completed her PhD in College Student Personnel. Her research interests include immersive service-learning and Alternative Break programs, the use of advanced quantitative and qualitative methods to assess student outcomes in higher education, and the internationalization of higher education.

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