Amid the ongoing drug war plaguing Mexico and other countries in Central America, some students planning to go on alternative spring break trips south of the border will no longer be doing community service next week.
Students originally traveling to Guatemala through the University of Michigan Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break program were told the trip was cancelled due to safety concerns, though the exact reasoning behind the termination is unclear.
Though Jennifer Johnson, a University alum in charge of the Alternative Spring Break program at Hillel, told the 14 students formerly participating in the program that American Jewish World Service cancelled the trip due to security reasons and because “political unrest had made it unsafe.”
“AJWS has pulled all of their participants out and is in the process of relocating all groups who were scheduled to volunteer there,” Johnson wrote in a Jan. 26 e-mail informing the participants of the cancellation.
Samantha Wolthuis, director of service at AJWS, said though the organization called off the ASB trip for the University students, it also provided alternative options.
“We cancelled the Guatemala portion and offered for the group to go to Nicaragua or Mexico, but because of logistical reasons, Hillel opted not to take that offer,” Wolthuis said. “So we initially transferred the group from Guatemala to other countries because of the safety and security issues in Guatemala.”
In addition to security concerns, Wolthuis said that there were “multiple reasons” why they removed the trip in Guatemala, and the final decision was made between AJWS and program officers in Guatemala. She said groups at other universities that were also supposed to go to Guatemala were cancelled as well.
Johnson wrote in the e-mail to the students that a majority of the group’s members had timing conflicts with rescheduling the trip to Nicaragua, and the trip to Mexico would cost about $300 more for each student. The other option was to move the Guatemala trip to May, but that option conflicted with the students’ schedules.
Johnson said in an interview though she knew security was an issue, she is not entirely sure why AJWS cancelled the trip to Guatemala.
She said though AJWS told her “the government was oppressing (the) community in Guatemala,” the organization didn’t clarify what community was being suppressed or what this precisely meant.
Johnson wrote in her e-mail to the students that she understood the frustrations cancelling the trip might cause.
“I share your sentiments about making alternate spring break plans this late,” Johnson wrote to the students. “However, I urge you to keep in mind that these complications primarily came about due to the concern for the safety of the students, not by any carelessness or oversight of those working to create this trip for you.”
While students were told travel insurance wouldn’t cover the cost that incurred for cancelling the flight, Hillel Executive Director Michael Brooks wrote in an e-mail to the students that Hillel would cover the $150 refund fee for students if necessary.
Students planning to attend the trip said they were disheartened but understanding when they heard the trip was cancelled.
Kinesiology senior Ali Spiesman said her “biggest reaction was just disappointment” and that she was looking forward to the trip after previously traveling to El Salvador through AJWS.
“I really wanted another opportunity to go on another service mission, and I figured what better chance than through the school?” she said. “(ASB) is something so different, something that most students don’t get to do on spring break and then you just get that taken away from you.”
LSA freshman Michelle Rubin said she was excited to go on the trip and form new friendships.
“I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from people who went in the past, particularly through Hillel,” Rubin said. “I thought it would be a good way to get involved with Hillel and meet people.”
LSA freshman Kevin Wender said though he still feels let down the trip was cancelled, he respects the decision.
“I wouldn’t want to put my well-being at risk,” he said.
Wender said he wasn’t sure what the group was going to do in Guatemala, but they were supposed to find out the details at an orientation, which was scheduled for Feb. 7.
Johnson said the mission was going to help build a center for classes and various programs for indigenous communities facing oppression.
LSA freshman Brenna Hoffman said she chose Hillel’s ASB over other choices at the University because she liked the location options better.
At a University Board of Regents meeting last week, University President Mary Sue Coleman praised the number of University students traveling on ASB trips at 35 different locations next week.
“I’m pleased to tell you that we have some 450 students who are participating in Alternative Spring Break and fanning out across the country to perform community service,” Coleman said. “Public service is a proud campus tradition and I want to commend our students for giving their vacation time to help others.”