Spring break! Time to shake off those midwinter blues, shuck the down parka, and fly off to somewhere sandy and warm. Unless, that is, you’re a UMSI graduate student.

In that case, your spring break is more likely to be spent in Chicago, braving blustery winds as you log neighborhood attractions for the Chicago Tourism Board, or conducting usability testing with visitors to the Adler Planetarium. Or you might be in Washington, inventorying captured Japanese war documents at the Library of Congress or designing a new template for a website at the Federal Trade Commission.

If you find yourself in New York, you’re likely to be distributing library books to prisoners on Rikers Island, attending an artifact repatriation at the National Museum of the American Indian, or helping to digitize television film at the Paley Center for Media. If you’ve chosen to stay near home, you could be weeding through dusty boxes of historic recordings for the Detroit Public Library or helping process some of the 142 boxes of the Michael Suleiman collection, the largest known collection of Arab-American related material. But wherever you are, you’re surely having the time of your life, and you wouldn’t trade a boring beach for a million bucks.

Every year since 1999, the School of Information has sponsored an Alternative Spring Break (ASB), sending motivated, enthusiastic graduate students out into the world to perform a week of public service in a big city setting. While many of their friends and fellow students are catching up on schoolwork and sleep or sunning down south, these dedicated volunteers are putting in full 40-hour weeks at a nonprofit, government, or cultural institution aligned with their education goals and interests. In the 14 years the program has existed, participating institutions have benefited from over 33,000 hours of effort by over 700 SI students.

From its first year, with barely a dozen students and one faculty member, the program has grown to the extent that over a third of the master’s degree students take part. This year, 140 students will be spending the week of February 27-March 2 on projects in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Detroit.

The program is a win-win for both parties. Students are able to apply their education to real-life projects, gaining professional experience at some of America’s premier institutions. They gain contacts in the field they hope to enter after graduation, and many are offered summer internships after their week of volunteering. About one in 10 students are actually offered full-time positions by their ASB site after graduating.

The organizations, in turn, receive help with projects they may lack staff or budget to implement. The professional staff (many of whom are SI alums) appreciate the students’ fresh ideas, suggestions, and perspectives on problems. Over 80% of the ASB organizations are repeat participants, and most return year after year, indicating a high level of satisfaction with the student workers.

Participation in the program is free for the students and organizations, with the cost of transportation and the week’s lodging covered by fund the students raise throughout the school year. Fundraisers include a fall book sale, a midwinter talent show, and the just-concluded Penny War (“won,” as always, by the deep-pocketed faculty, PhD students, and staff).

Last year, the students introduced an online fundraising component as well, bringing in over $10,000 from family and friends. The Crowdrise online campaign will take place again this year, beginning February 13 and continuing through March 9. The goal is $15,000.

To make things more interesting, many students have formed teams to see who can raise the most money, and anyone can either contribute to a team or join in as a fundraiser themselves. A variety of prizes will be awarded to donors and to top fundraisers throughout the campaign. The prizes change every week, so check back often!