ASB 2018 projects range from Detroit to Florida

Since 1999, UMSI Alternative Spring Break (ASB) has been connecting students with non-profit, cultural, governmental and educational institutions in major cities such as Washington, D.C., Chicago and Detroit. For one week each spring, students can engage in service-oriented learning while organizations receive skilled support. ASB fosters a relationship between the school and the greater community while challenging students to become socially engaged professionals.

Caroline (Schuitema) Wack

MSI student Caroline (Schuitema) Wack spent spring break creating an online exhibit for The Heidelberg Project (HP) an outdoor art environment and Detroit based community organization promoting social and economic health through art.

Caroline knew Alternative Spring Break would grant her “practical experience to showcase, a better idea of how the theories we learned in class function in the real world, and valuable connections in the city I hope to work in.”

“My work involved a deep dive into the organization's history and learning about the significant events and themes of the artwork so I could create an appropriate narrative,” she said. She uploaded photos to the Heidelberg Project's Google Cultural Institute account, added metadata and designed an exhibit.

Home page of website designed by Caroline

HP wanted Caroline to continue this work, but didn’t have the funding. “The School of Information has funding available for students who want to work with non-profit or social impact organizations,” recalled Caroline, “I began exploring that option as a way to continue my work with an organization I had grown to love.” She was awarded the UMSI Internship Grant, and will be returning to the Heidelberg Project to help create an archive and curation plan. “This project is a huge step up in scope and responsibility for me, but I am ready for the challenge.”


Guanchao Huang, Chetan Keshav, Denver Nash and Jatin Gupta traveled to Florida for Alternative Spring Break. The utility department of Fort Myers aimed to install 2,300 automatic water shut off valves for residents, in case of non-payment of the water bill. ASB students helped the utility department determine issues in the payment system and identify potential customers for the valves.

Jatin, a second year MSI student specializing in product design, chose to participate in Alternative Spring Break because, he says, “It gave me a chance to explore a variety of projects and figure out if I want to get into that domain as I progress in my career.”
His team’s project began by meeting stakeholders to understand the problem at hand and collaborate. Next, the students created a survey which they sent to the entire city of Fort Myers in order to understand their technological preferences and verify their hypothesis related to late bill payment. Then they interviewed customers and used data to create geographic visualizations of customers who experienced shut-offs in 2017. 


In partnership with the Florida Gulf Coast University Department of Social Work, ASB students Keely Meyers, Lusi Wang, Mengying Zhang, Jelena Knezevic and Mackenzie Mann collected data on food access points, prices and the acceptance of SNAP/EBT benefits at stores and restaurants in Immokalee, FL. They developed a map that the FGCU Department of Social Work will use to increase SNAP/EBT acceptance at food access points in Immokalee.

Mackenzie Mann was the only non-UMSI student on this project. She is a student in the University of Michigan School of Social Work, studying Management of Human Services in the MSW program. Her role was vital since she spoke Spanish, which was helpful for collecting data on food prices, and had experience working with farmworker communities.

Ultimately, she says, “I gained new skills in GIS, entering communities, respectfully partnering with community stakeholders and data collection.” After Alternative Spring Break, she better understands USDA definitions of food insecurity, which she says is very relevant to social work practice.

Mengying, an MSI student on the Data Science track, collected geographical data and conducted data analysis for the project. Before ASB, she said, “I was afraid I wouldn’t find a job after graduation, but after this experience, I feel more optimistic and know there are many things I can accomplish.” 


Josh Kim is a senior in the BSI program with a UX concentration. He volunteered for Alternative Fall Break, “loved the experience,” and decided to participate in Alternative Spring Break too.

For Alternative Fall Break, Josh joined Data Driven Detroit (D3), a non-profit that collects, analyzes and shares data to drive decision-making and deliver resources to the community. He interviewed stakeholders for the D3 civic data platform. Months later, with Alternative Spring Break, Josh worked with CUTGroup, a D3 initiative asking residents to test a civic app and sites. His tasks included recruiting local residents for CUTGroup and analyzing the online public services map tool for the City of Detroit to enhance its usability.

Josh says that “living and working with [MSI students] was really fun and exciting.” He learned how to work with people from different backgrounds and how his UX skills can, and are, used in the real-world. 

Whether they gained work experience, honed their skills, gave back to the community or made friends, these students appreciated Alternative Spring Break. There’s no doubt ASB defined their academic year, and gave these Wolverines memories and connections which will shape their future for years to come.

By Brooke White, Editorial Assistant

Posted June 14, 2018