University of Iowa

Alternative Spring Break: Scholars in Search of Educational Equity

Story by Laura Wang

Financial support for this service trip was provided by the Charles and Mary Austin Fund. If you are interested in learning how you may be able to support the Honors Program, please contact the Honors Director,

This spring semester, the Presidential Scholars Program, in coordination with the Center for Student Involvement & Leadership, organized an alternative spring break, during which 12 Presidential Scholars, including myself, visited Kansas City, Missouri with a course attached to the experience. The topic was educational equity, a theme voted for by the Presidential Scholars last fall. It seemed appropriate that a group recognized for its academic achievements discover how to help others do the same. During alternative spring break, I learned about the implications of service trips and generational poverty as well as about the sports culture in Kansas City and the unique struggles of Latino and Latina students. Led by Thomas Keegan, Head of Digital Research & Publishing and Lindsay Marshall, Associate Director of the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, my fellow spring breakers and I visited Della Lamb Community Services, KIPP Endeavor Academy, the Guadalupe Center, Harvesters, the Missouri Educator's Association, and the Boys & Girls Club of Kansas City to learn more about the work these organizations do.

While service is important to me, service trips are always, to a degree, problematic. They exist on the assumption that less privileged individuals require assistance from the more privileged. They all conclude with the service teams returning to their easier life. Our team visited people who spend forty hours of their week addressing the problem of educational equity. We spent a few short hours with each before returning to pursue our fully funded higher education. An English teacher at KIPP provided the following insight: “I hope my students never see me as the white middle­class woman from the suburbs who dreams of teaching inner­city kids.” It stuck with me because she was so aware of her position, her identity, and consequently, what that might mean to her students. Like her, we will never be able to erase the connotations of a “service trip,” but that doesn't mean that our intentions are disingenuous. In class discussions following the trip, we brainstormed ways to make use of what we learned to make meaningful change in the Iowa City’s education systems.

Beneath all of the information, frustration, and viewpoints from our community partners, there was a steady drive of purpose. Each person we met believes in what they do, a refreshing attitude amidst the oppressive problem of educational inequity. Every community partner was devoted to allowing their kids to discover what the right path was for themselves, whether that is college, trade school, the military, or something else. Tyrone Moore, the Unit Director of Thornberry at the Boys & Girls Club, wants his kids to lead crime­free lives. Judy Ackers, Director of Della Lamb, said she expects her kids to be safe, responsible, and respectful. Lisa, Director of Curriculum Development at the Guadalupe Center, said that the only unacceptable outcome of a Guadalupe Center graduate is if they think that another school would have served them better. A cynic would say that these standards are low, but I disagree. It's uplifting. In the face of unfair legislation and low funding, these organizations are not interested in statistics but in giving their kids the resources to be who they want to be.