This March, 10 students started spring break poised for revelation.

As participants on Puget Sound’s “alternative spring break,” they headed to Los Angeles to explore how migration and westward expansion have impacted society and culture in Southern California. They had five days to figure it out.

Alt breaks are organized by the Center for Intercultural and Civic Engagement (CICE), with the goal of helping students gain perspective and empathy. By taking a “deep dive” into a single social issue—or by examining overlapping issues through a geographic or historical lens—students find connections between others’ experiences and their own. And they often come away understanding both a little better.

I was more encouraged to speak up in class about what I think with valid, concrete evidence."

– Kari Nolasco ’21


On this trip, Dave Wright ’96, director for spiritual life and civic engagement, and Skylar Bihl ’08, assistant director, led the students through L.A.’s complex social history by examining the mission system, instances of religious and ethnic persecution, the role of Disneyland in cultural appropriation, and more.

For first-time participant Kari Nolasco ’21, the revelations came slowly. “At first, I felt really lost and confused,” she says. “I’d never heard of or explored the many issues that we learned about before. It was really overwhelming to be immersed in such intense material, and I felt like I wasn’t absorbing anything. However, when I came back from break, I started noticing that my way of thinking changed. I became more aware, more mindful, and more sensitive to topics such as social justice and accessibility issues.”

Kari’s shift in thinking carried over to the classroom. “After this trip, I was more encouraged to speak up in class about what I think with valid, concrete evidence,” she says. “[This confidence] allows me to be more present in the classroom and encourages me to engage in tough conversations and ask questions when we discuss something I’m not familiar with.”

“That was me two years ago,” says Carley Kaleikaumaka Arraujo ’18. A sociology and anthropology major with a double minor in education and African American studies, Carley has been involved with campus alt breaks since her sophomore year, when students investigated inequity in the criminal justice system. Now the social justice coordinator for CICE, she helped plan and coordinate the L.A. trip, as well as past trips that explored themes such as the historical and modern contexts of civil rights, food justice, and gentrification in Tacoma.

“There is a special bond that happens when you are on the road with a group of people for a week, engaging in issues of social justice and struggling through together, supporting each other and hearing others’ stories,” Carley says. “We talk a lot about injustice as theoretical and conceptual. In academia, we often forget that these are people we are talking about, histories that affect people.”

For Kari, that a-ha moment came at the San Juan Capistrano Missionary, a few days after walking through an exhibit at the L.A. Natural History Museum. Both locations explored the treatment of indigenous people by Catholic missionaries. “Learning about the way that missionaries treated Native Americans made me contemplate my own faith,” she says. “I can acknowledge that the people who shared the same faith as me [committed atrocities] in the past, but I have the power to make sure that that part of history doesn’t repeat itself.”