UNCP students experience the Everglades during alternative spring break

Alt spring break
UNCP students recently participated in an alternative spring break experience in Florida

When most people think of spring break in Florida, they think of sandy beaches and amusement parks. 


However, for one group of UNCP students, spring break involved wading waist-deep through the Everglades, planting urban gardens in Miami and experiencing what life is like for Florida's Indigenous communities. 


Hosted by the offices of Community and Civic Engagement and the Center for Student Success, alternative spring break allows students to travel to different areas to participate in community engagement and volunteer projects. 


"Outside of the service projects, it's a chance for students to learn about different cultures and how people are living and taking care of each other and handling any social injustices as a community," said Shelby Newsome, assistant director of Community and Civic Engagement. 


Newsome was one of two chaperones on the trip. The week began with a visit to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, where students learned about Seminole culture. They ventured down a one-mile boardwalk through the Everglades, where they encountered Native plants that thrive in the region. 


"The tour was even more special because of our tour guide, Cheyenne Kippenberger, who was Miss Indian World," said Vyankatesh Chavan, a sophomore studying public policy. "She taught us about the uniqueness of the Seminole culture. It really struck me that they were unconquered and preserved many of their traditions. So that was something that really had an impact on me." 


From there, the group traveled to Miami for a few days, where they visited Pridelines, a center for the LGBTQ community. The students helped the organization move into their new facility and assisted with preparing a community garden. 


"We did a lot of group reflections after each day, and it was fascinating to hear how students' reflections changed and got deeper throughout the week. To me, it's their understanding of the influence that they can make. Whether it's big or small, it all has a ripple effect," said Newsome. 


The group assisted at two other Miami nonprofits, Citizens For A Better South Florida and the Green Haven Project, where they learned how gentrification has affected citizens of urban areas. They also helped plant a community garden and even sampled fruit from the garden. "The service projects were very impactful on me because although there were tasks that I'd never done before, I was able to learn as I went and still create a change for the community," said Landon Shelley, a sophomore nursing major. 


The group ended their trip where it began—back to the Everglades with a "swamp walk" among cedar trees and lush vegetation. "This particular activity was challenging physically and mentally; however, it was full of laughter and many falls that never got old!" Shelley said. "This excursion allowed us to bond on a different level and brought us all closer together." 


Next, representatives from the Miccosukee tribe took them on an airboat tour to islands where they sat among chickees—the traditional thatched-roofed dwellings of the tribe. "While there, we were able to learn about the history of the Miccosukee and some of the current environmental injustices that are going on," Chavan said. 


Chavan said he returned to Pembroke with a greater understanding of Florida's Indigenous and urban communities and an inspiration to continue service work. "I think some students left inspired," Newsome said. "And that's another goal: taking back what they're learning on these trips and how they can incorporate that in our campus community, Pembroke, and even their own communities if they're not from here."