You are here: American University Campus Life Community Engagement & Service Alternative Breaks FAQs


Please scroll down for the traditional Alternative Break Program FAQ section.

Based on the trajectory of the COVID-19 variants, the status of international travel, and the health, safety, and logistical challenges the pandemic will present over the next several months, travel decisions will be made on an individual program basis in accordance with our colleagues in AU Abroad, Risk Management, and across the university. In the event that travel isn’t possible, the program will move to one of the following options - virtual, hybrid, or a flipped model where we bring partners here to DC. Regardless of the modality of the program, the office is committed to facilitating immersive experiences between students and community partners utilizing a variety of platforms and technologies.

Each program includes 6-8 weeks of pre-departure training, discussion, and preparation with your Alternative Break program group facilitated by our student leaders. The time commitment for training is 1-2 hours weekly during that time in preparation for the immersive learning component of the Alt Break. As with in-person experiences, program training is in preparation for an immersive and short term engagement with community partners that work in the specific theme of the program. Program engagement in our typical in-person experiences usually takes place only during university break sessions (Winter, Spring, or Summer). Virtual experiences will take place over some weekends, though the exact program schedule is still being determined. Each program structure will vary slightly from program-to-program, but all program trainings and activities will not compete with structured class time.

These experiences challenge students to think critically and compassionately—and to understand that there’s no such thing as “not my problem.” Participants are empowered to make more informed decisions and to take meaningful action that supports a greater good. As with in-person experiences, all programs and students work with their group to implement a service, advocacy, or activism project to share their learnings with our broader community. Through alternative breaks, we hope to foster the personal growth of contributing members of society.


Alternative Breaks are service-learning experiences designed to heighten participants’ awareness of critical social issues, enhance their individual growth, and prepare them for lifelong social action. Each student-initiated trip integrates service, reflection and education and focuses on topics as varied as poverty, indigenous rights, structural racism, human rights, fair trade, gender equality, and the environment.

Alternative breaks distinguish themselves from other volunteer programs by adhering to a foundation of eight specific components:

Strong Direct Service
Programs provide opportunities for participants to engage directly with community members through hands-on projects and activities. Programs should develop projects informed by community identified assets and needs and in conjunction with their community partner/s.

Full Engagement
Alternative breaks provide participants with an opportunity to live in line with community, program, or trip specific values. Programs create opportunities for individuals to consider ways of aligning values and actions with regard to choices about the alternative break experience. Examples include: accommodations, food, team selection, technology, transportation, packing, and spending money. One clear example of Full Engagement is the alcohol & drug-free component inherent to alternative breaks.

Diversity and Social Justice
Alternative break programs include participants representing the range of students present in the American University community. Strong programs engage participants in dialogue that furthers the understanding of how systems of power, privilege, and oppression relate to social issues and service work in communities. This deepened awareness enables students to do more responsible, sustainable, and impactful community work.

Before, during, and after the alternative break program, participants learn about the communities, organization/s, and projects with which they are working.

Effective education provides a framework of intersecting perspectives developed to help participants understand the root causes and effects of social issues. Powerful education should also include information to connect participants’ personal life choices and experiences to the topic.

Throughout the entire alternative break experience, participants are provided with training necessary to carry out tasks and activities related to the service project. Ideally, participants gain life-long skills that provide them with opportunities to engage in their community upon return from the trip.

Anytime participants engage in community work, they are strongly encouraged to reflect upon the experience - synthesizing service, education, and community immersion components. Time is set aside for this to take place individually and as a group and should occur both organically and through structured activities.

Upon completion of the alternative break experience, individuals transfer lessons learned by engaging in continued education, service, advocacy, and/ or philanthropy. Participants join or organize small groups to take action around issues on campus, in their neighborhoods, within the local community, and more broadly.


Each semester the Center for Community Engagement & Service will open the applications for program participants. It is recommended that prospective participants attend program information sessions and/or meetings with the program leaders. A link to the Alternative Break Program application can be accessed when it becomes live.

All American University Students who are currently enrolled may participate in an Alternative Break Program. This includes any undergraduate or graduate student including both part-time and full time degree seeking students.

Washington College of Law students may be eligible, however the WCL academic calendar may differ from other American University programs, and therefore programs may not coincide with students' availability to travel.

Alternative Break programs are co-curricular activities designed to provide immersive and experiential learning for students across the American University system. These experiences take place outside the traditional classroom and are not intended to be for research or class work. There is not currently a universal for-credit option to pursue with Alternative Break programs, however students may pursue for-credit independent study options in conjunction with their Alternative Break experience depending on their degree program. 

A student's ability to pursue independent study credit depends on the individual’s academic progress, their academic program, and their remaining degree requirements. This option requires each individual student to identify a full-time professor within their program, department, or major who is willing to supervise an independent study project. Students' academic advisors are the best resource to explore where this may fit into their program of study. For more information, please discuss this with the Alternative Break Office or consult with your academic advisor.

All Alternative Break programs are conducted outside of regular class time during our Winter, Fall, or Summer academic breaks. All Alternative Break program activities / trainings are scheduled in a way to allow students to participate outside of the regular class schedule. Travel on the programs is organized so that students depart and return after classes have finished for the semester. On the rare occasion that travel does coincide with a student class session, we work with the professor and student to seek approved accommodations. It is the policy of the program that students may not miss class for an Alternative Break Program.

Alternative Break Travel Grants are available and are funded by the Joseph T. Eldridge Social Justice Alternative Break Endowment Fund. Travel grant applications are need-based as determined by the Office of Financial Aid and students' disclosures on their FAFSA form. Grants range widely, but seek to cover between 10 - 25% of the cost of attendance. Students may apply for these limited travel grants at the time of application to the program, as part of the same application form. 

Travel grant applications are processed at the same time as participant applications, and can be found in the same application form as the traditional application. 

Additionally, all groups are encouraged to fundraise to offset the cost of the programs. If a student chooses to complete the credit option for their program, they may be able to apply for their financial aid award to pay for the additional credits associated with the program, financial Aid cannot.

Each program ranges between 10 - 15 participants. Every program is led by 2 student co-leaders and one staff or faculty advisor that travels with the program. 

Yes. Any enrolled AU student may participate in our Alternative Break programs. 

International students are very welcome to join an Alternative Break program! Talk to International Student and Scholar Services about travel requirements such as visa regulations. The specific visa requirements will depend on the student's citizenship and the program destination. The Alternative Break Program staff are available to discuss these concerns with any international student. 

Alternative Breaks are queer friendly and strive to provide a welcoming environment for people across all identities. Alternative Break leaders will discuss each specific location and theme during pre-program trainings. The safety of all participants is at the top of each program's priorities.

All participants experience cultural differences when on Alternative Break programs, both international and domestic. In many places, expression of gender identity and sexual orientation is more open than what you are used to at AU and in the USA. In other places, however, homosexuality is illegal and expressing your sexual orientation or gender identity could pose legal and/or safety risks.

In many cases, our Alternative Break programs trainings will cover topics such as the following:

  • attitudes towards the LGBTQ community in our host community;
  • relevant norms and behavioral expectations within the LGBTQ community in our host community;
  • laws governing the LGBTQ community. 

The following are some relevant resources to review prior to traveling on an Alternative Break program:

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion at AU is an important partner of CCES. Their office is located in the Mary Graydon Center Room 201. Tel: 1-202-885-3651 or

The RAINBOW SIG (Special Interest Group of NAFSA: Association of International Educators) is a group of professionals in the field of international education. They can counsel and support LGBTQ study abroad students and provide a lot of valuable information and resources on their website. Also, read through the archives of their SIGnals Newsletters to read stories from study abroad students and administrators about their experiences abroad.

The OutRight Action International protects and advances the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. A U.S. based non-profit organization, OutRight responds to human rights violations around the world through documentation, advocacy, coalition building, public education, and technical assistance.

The International Lesbian and Gay Association is a world-wide federation of national and local groups dedicated to achieving equal rights for LGBT people everywhere.  LGA focuses public and government attention on cases of discrimination by supporting programs and protest actions, asserting diplomatic pressure, providing information, and working with international organizations and media.

The National Center for Transgender Equality provides air travel tips for transgender people who have endured the increased scrutiny, harassment, and discrimination while trying to travel due to the heightened airport security.

Damron offers a searchable online database of worldwide gay and lesbian travel listings, including accommodations, hotels, resorts, bars, nightclubs, and more.

The safety and security of our students is THE most important priority we have as we prepare and plan our Alternative Break programs. All travel, both domestic and international, comes with some inherent risks. To minimize those risks, and ensure our students' safety and security CCES works in partnership with our Risk Management and Global Safety Offices at American University in order to prepare for our programs. The Global Safety Office is our main partner in monitoring and assessing both public and private intelligence sources to ensure our program locations' safety. They also assist the Alternative Break Office with safety briefings and securing insurance prior to departure.

Alternative Breaks programs require a full year commitment from their participants. Orientation activities take place in the semester prior to direct engagement (when the trip takes place) and involve weekly trainings on the social justice issue, service-learning, and cross-cultural communication.

The direct engagement component of Alternative Breaks takes place over winter, spring, or summer breaks and lasts up to 3 weeks. Finally, participants spend the semester after direct engagement working on activism projects and reorientation activities.

No, only enrolled students may participate in an Alternative Break. Alumni are currently not eligible. Students must be returning to campus after the Alternative Break program in order to complete their advocacy and/or reorientation projects with the Alternative Break programs. 

If a student is in their last year of school, for example, they may participate in a Winter or Spring program, but not a summer program.  

The Alternative Break program makes every effort to ensure that students with disabilities can participate successfully in Alternative Break programs. Please be aware that we cannot guarantee that facilities or support services will be available at each location abroad in the same range and quality as on the AU campus. We encourage students with disabilities to meet with staff in the Academic Support and Access Center to discuss accommodation needs and identify appropriate sites overseas.

Alternative Breaks were founded as an alternative to the typical spring break experience. We believe the use of alcohol takes away from our goal of being fully present and engaged in our program activities. Alcohol use may adversely affect group dynamics, participant safety, the local host community, the university, and the national alternative break student movement. 

As members of the alternative breaks organization, Break Away, we adhere to the specific quality components prescribed that build a strong and meaningful community engagement experience for our students and partners. Our policy of encouraging "Full Engagement" includes being Alcohol and Drug Free. Each leader and participant sign a contract agreeing to this component and pledges to abstain from alcohol and drugs for the duration of the Alternative Break program.

Cost depends on the distance and length of time of the direct engagement component of the program. Domestic programs may range from $350 - $1,250, Latin America $1400 - $2200, Asia and Africa $3000 - $4,000. Program prices include group airfare, food, lodging, and all activities. Not included are visa and immunization costs. 

For undergraduates pursuing an independent study academic credit in conjunction with an Alternative Break program, they will incur an additional cost for tuition if they are over the maximum 17 credits per semester. Graduate credits registering credits would pay the same per credit rate as any of their other courses.