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For UMSI students, a spring break with lasting impact

A team of UMSI students poses with their community partner, Dress for Success, in Washington, D.C.
From left, MSI student Shujun Li, community partner Angela Jones, MSI student Sandhya Srinivasan, BSI student Jess Cummings and MSI students Ge Zeng, Jin Xu and Ziyang Fang

Monday, 03/18/2024

Something unique about the University of Michigan’s “spring” break: It falls during winter. In the dregs of February, the nicest-sounding thing in the world would be to escape to a beach or hole up with a good Netflix series. 

But this year, 22 students from the School of Information opted to spend their spring breaks completing hands-on information projects in communities across the U.S. And no, they didn’t sacrifice fun. Read on for spy tunnels, special-access tours and centuries-old playbills. 

First offered in 1999, UMSI’s Alternative Spring Break program pairs students with nonprofit, cultural, governmental and educational organizations, where they work in teams over the course of four days to address an information challenge. This year, project sites spanned from Dearborn and Alpena, Mich., to Washington, D.C., and Columbia, S.C.

Jess Cummings, a Bachelor of Science in Information student on the UX design track, traveled to Washington, D.C., to work with Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing comprehensive support, including workforce development and professional attire. 

“I had an opportunity to spend my time relaxing or enjoying a spring break, but after reflecting, I realized that I wanted to make an impact,” Cummings says. 

Her team collected and analyzed data on the organization’s donors, volunteers and clients — which was housed in separate systems — and consolidated it into a master datasheet. Their goal was to enable Dress for Success to better engage, support and track its contacts. 

“I've never really had a chance to experience what it's like to work with an actual organization,” Cummings says. “So it was very interesting to help create something I know can actually be used afterwards and not just hidden in my Google folder.”

A photo of Jess Cummings posing at the International Spy Museum
Mission complete: BSI student Jess Cummings poses at the International Spy Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jess Cummings)

In their free time, the team explored the city, even making their way to the International Spy Museum, where they had fun crawling through a spy tunnel on their hands and knees. 

Hopping on the plane to Washington, D.C., had felt a little like this for Cummings: moving forward into the unfamiliar, unsure what awaited her on the other side.

“Going into this experience, I was incredibly nervous since I was the only undergraduate student on my team,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘No one's going to want my help.’”

She surprised herself by stepping into the role of project manager and, over the course of four days, forming genuine friendships with her team members in the Master of Science in Information program, who welcomed her input.  

“I connected with all of them,” she says. “We come from different backgrounds, but it's all about expressing our talents. And for me, I've learned my leadership ability.”

Her team went beyond the expectations of the program by offering their contact information to the community partner in case questions arose after their departure. “We wanted to make sure our project was sustainable,” Cummings says. “The organization is able to provide more time for what actually matters, and we were able to provide an impact.” 

Angie Zill, student engagement program manager at UMSI, oversees the ASB program. “I was so impressed by students’ commitment to each other, their projects and the community partners,” she says. “We require students to participate in workshops before the spring break week that emphasize the importance of ethical engagement and proper project management, and the students really followed through on those points.” 

Finding what you’re searching for 

This was the first year that students in UMSI’s Master of Applied Data Science — a fully online degree program — participated in ASB. 

One of those two MADS students, Lauralyn Curry-Leech, has a background in cognitive science and a decade of experience working in design and operations at nonprofits and startups. 

“I was doing a lot of work with data and thinking, there has to be an easier way of doing what I’m doing,” she says. “I wanted the ability to take findings and make them more accessible.”

The remote nature of the MADS program was a perfect fit, she says, for where she was at in her life and career. And while the MADS program offers collaboration with other students online, Curry-Leech saw ASB as “a great opportunity to work in person with other students on a project and have a bit of that camaraderie.”

ASB 2024 at Library of Congress

A selfie of Lauralyn Curry-Leech pointing to the Washington Monument
MADS student Lauralyn Curry-Leech explored Washington, D.C., during her free time.
A photo of the main reading room of the Library of Congress, which features a tall, painted dome.
The main reading room of the Library of Congress. (Photo: Lauralyn Curry-Leech)
A photo of three people viewing an ancient-looking book.
Stephanie Stillo, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, introduces students to "The Emperor's Astronomy" (1540). (Photo: Lauralyn Curry-Leech)
A team dinner. (Photo: Lauralyn Curry-Leech)
Yooseung Son, Xiyuan Wang, Rishma Balakrishnan, Summer Huang, Annabel Zhuang, Shreya Mani, Anne Else and Samuel Imbody enjoy a team lunch. (Photo: Lauralyn Curry-Leech)

Her team of BSI, MSI and MADS students was matched with the Library of Congress, where they analyzed over 4.1 million unique search terms — just one year of terms entered by visitors to Based on their analysis, the team ideated ways to improve the LOC website and other digital products.

“We were looking at people’s behavior, and then how the search interface might be changed to help facilitate people’s searches,” Curry-Leech says. She enjoyed problem-solving with her teammates in real time and bouncing ideas off of one another. 

While the team spent long hours considering a user’s experience of the front end of the LOC website, they also got to glimpse the “back end” of the LOC’s work.

“I thought because we had such a tight time frame that it really was going to just be us sitting there cranking away at a project, in order to be able to come away with anything meaningful,” Curry-Leech recalls. Instead, thanks to LOC staff, her team discovered parts of the library that aren’t on view to the public, including the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room

For Natalie Buda Smith, director of digital strategy, this was one of the joys of hosting the student team. “Many Library of Congress staff went to the University of Michigan,” she says. “So it was great to see through Lauralyn and team the next wave of great talent headed into our libraries, archives and other institutions.”

A human element

Closer to home, but a destination on its own: the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, which houses 26 million artifacts — from the presidential limousine of John F. Kennedy to vast archival collections that are available to researchers but not typically displayed.

MSI student Jack Schmitt poses at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Jack Schmitt spent his spring break at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. (Photo: Jeff Smith)

Jack Schmitt, a second-year MSI student on the library science and archives track, worked alongside first-year MSI student Tara Dorje to create inventories of two collections acquired by the museum in the past few years: a collection of 35 mm photographic slides from industrial designer Don Chadwick and a collection of materials related to the history of textile manufacture in the U.S. 

Until it has been inventoried, or processed, a collection is like a stack of boxes someone forgot to label during a move. 

In the Chadwick collection alone, “there were six or seven FedEx boxes’ worth of photographic slides that had yet to be processed,” Schmitt says. “Which meant that, from the museum’s standpoint, they knew they had them, but they didn't really know what they had, and it wasn't accessible to researchers or anyone who would be really invested in the collection.” 

ASB 2024 at the Henry Ford

MSI students Jack Schmitt and Tara Dorje carry boxes of photographic slides
MSI students Jack Schmitt and Tara Dorje worked box by box to make the Chadwick collection accessible to researchers. (Photo: Jeff Smith)
Jack Schmitt holds two photographic slides he is processing
Inventory in-progress: Each box contained rows of small red slide boxes. (Photo: Jeff Smith)
Schmitt and Dorje worked methodically to collect a title and date from each slide box. (Photo: Jeff Smith)
Schmitt and Dorje worked methodically to collect a title and date from each slide box. (Photo: Jeff Smith)
A photographic slide from the Chadwick collection is pictured on a white background. It is a close-up shot of an employee working in an industrial studio.
Schmitt's favorite slide from the collection depicts an employee in the studio. (Photo: Jeff Smith)

Each FedEx box contained rows of small red slide boxes holding 10-40 photographic slides each. While most slides were “catalog shots” of office seating — the products Chadwick is known for — Schmitt’s favorite depicts an employee in the studio. 

“It’s a really great shot of his face, intimately working with the materials,” he describes. “It was a reminder that there was a very human element in the making of the products.” 

In archival work, there is a human element present not only in the materials but in their handling. Schmitt and Dorje worked methodically to collect a title and date from each slide box and enter them into a spreadsheet, then carefully rehoused them in archival boxes.

“In a very short amount of time, they were able to capture information from more than 340 boxes of photographic slides and 210 envelopes of textile trade literature, greatly increasing access to those two collections for our users,” says Brian Wilson, senior manager of archives and library at the Benson Ford Research Center. “Jack and Tara were great to work with, and we really appreciate their help.”

Wilson knows the ASB program well, having participated when he was a student. He graduated from UMSI with an MSI in archives and records management in 2010. Now on the community partner side, Wilson offered both students a behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s work, Schmitt says, “even taking the opportunity to pull archival material off the shelf that we might have an interest in.”  

With a background in theater, Schmitt geeked out over archival boxes filled with playbills — some of them centuries old, some from theaters he knew well. “It was a really unique opportunity,” he says. 

Wilson also arranged informational interviews for Schmitt and Dorje with a special collections librarian, a reference archivist and an associate curator at the Henry Ford Museum. 

“The primary reason I was drawn to ASB is the same reason that I would recommend it to any student,” Schmitt says. “It's an opportunity to have hands-on experience in the field, in the industry that you're desiring to transition into. It’s unique in that you can build relationships with folks at the institutions you might be interested in working at before you've even graduated.”

Since its creation 25 years ago, ASB has provided targeted information solutions to mission-driven organizations, while enabling students to form oftentimes lasting relationships with clients, communities and each other. 

Not bad for a spring break. 

— Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer

Alternative Spring Break was funded in 2024 by donors who contributed to the UMSI Annual Fund.