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An Alt Spring Break: For 7 University of Kansas Students, the (Work) Party Is at Zion Nat'l Park

Anna Hurst, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Kansas, experienced plenty of sun and sand during her spring break. No beach, but lots of sun and sand.

Hurst was a time zone away from the nearest ocean. She and 6 other Kansas students spent a week of their spring break in late March volunteering at Zion National Park.

“We did maintenance on one trail that had a lot of sand,” says Hurst, a finance major. “In places the trail was like pure sand. A few times I had to dump sand out of my shoes. But it was super fun. All the work we did made me appreciate the trails I go on a lot more.”

How cool is that?

zion-kansas-group-shot-2

Meet the student body—back row, left to right: junior Kris Mo, senior Wes Powell and freshman Adam Moon. Seated students, from left: sophomore Alex Kraatz, senior Anna Hurst, freshman Anna Dietz and senior Cassie Absher. Rock Chalk, Jayhawk.

Hurst, a native of Wichita, and her fellow Jayhawks are involved with a student-run movement known as Alternative Breaks, estimated to have around 140 colleges participating nationwide.

A noble cause. Hurst, pictured at Zion in the photo to the right, has been involved in the Kansas version of Alternative Breaks throughout her KU career and now serves as the coordinator of the Winter Breaks program at Kansas.

Her week-long stay at Zion was her third alternative spring break, her first coming 2 years ago when she pitched in some trail maintenance and sustainability work for the Environmental Leadership Program on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California.

Our inquiring minds had to know more.

The REI Blog: Mention college students and spring break and people usually think of dancing, music, zaniness. Volunteer work typically isn’t on the list.

Hurst: I’m not all that interested in the traditional idea of spring break. You think of kids going out and partying and drinking and going to the beach. You can do that over the summer. You can go out with friends at home.

But this is a really cool way to meet new people who are interested in things you’re interested in. You get to go to beautiful places.  It’s beautiful here in Zion, and we’re doing really cool work, giving back to the park. I’ve met people I never would have met otherwise. It’s just a really interesting opportunity.

zion-ku-more-trail-work

Wes Powell, Alex Kraatz, Cassie Absher and, below, Kris Mo doing trail work.

REI: So what is Break Away/Alternative Breaks?

Hurst: Alternative Breaks is a nonprofit organization that sends groups of students across the country to volunteer. They do weeklong programs or weekend breaks throughout the year. At Kansas we’ve got groups of students out volunteering at 14 sites during spring break. Zion is just one of the sites.

REI: How do students get involved?

Hurst: It’s advertised at the university. Students hear about it and they vie to go on the trips. There’s an interview process. If they’re selected, they’re required to take a class every week leading up to it for about 7 weeks.

REI: Are all the programs outdoor programs?

Hurst: Not all of them. Some are social programs. But we send people to the Cumberland Trail in Chattanooga, Tenn., and other national parks.

REI: How does the Zion program rate?

Hurst: Everyone on this trip had Zion listed as a top choice. Zion is usually a really competitive site. Actually, all of the environmental sites are competitive. So you know you’ve got a group of people who love camping and love being outside and love national parks. They want to volunteer and explore them more.

REI: So, do rangers heap work on you?

Hurst: We have a lot of free time here. We’ll work for about half of the day or maybe from 8 to 3. So we have plenty of time to go hiking or other fun outdoor stuff. We’re not slaving away the entire time.

REI: What is some of the work you do?

Hurst: The first day we cleaned out the Nature Center basement and helped the staff organize things. Then we still had time to go for a hike.

On Tuesday, we went helped fix bikes, which was really awesome because I didn’t know how to do that, and I’ve been meaning to fix my bike at home. We learned how to change tires, make sure the brakes were working well and the chain was on right.

That’s part of the sustainability program. They’re trying to give bikes to all of the rangers so they don’t have to drive back and forth so much. We learned a ton of stuff and fixed a ton of bikes.

Then we hiked for 5 hours up to Angel’s Landing [a steep, 5-five round-trip hike to an airy high point overlooking Zion Valley, with chain handrails installed in some exposed sections]. It was so much fun. One guy didn’t do the part with the chains. A few people were nervous, but for the most part we enjoyed ourselves. When we got to the top, we were loving it.

REI: Trail work, too?

Hurst: We cleared brush and this plant called manzanita from the [7.6-mile round-trip] Sand Bench Trail. It was like a workout in itself, hiking up to where we were working. We got to work with a trail crew.

zion-ku-duo-sand-bench

Cassie Absher and Anna Hurst above, and Wes Powell and Adam Moon below, get acquainted with loppers and Zion's fast-growing manzanita.

REI: Is this expensive?

Hurst: Pretty much everything is covered. You pay an initial amount to go on a program. Once you’re on the trip you don’t have to pay anything.

It’s really affordable for spring break. I think regular expenses are around $250 or $275, but there are lots of scholarships. The School of Business gave me $200, so I paid $50 for this week-long trip.

REI: You didn’t know any of the people on this trip until you connected in pre-trip classes. How was the group dynamic on the trip itself?

Hurst: This is a really cool way to meet new people who are interested in things you’re interested it. I’ve met people I never would have met otherwise. You get to go to beautiful places, and we’re doing really cool work, giving back to the park. It’s just a really interesting opportunity.

zion-ku-group-shot

The Magnificent 7 celebrate their clean-up effort for Zion's Nature Center.

REI: How did all of you get there?

Hurst: We’re all in one van together with all of our gear. That’s when you really got to know everyone. But it’s been really good. We have 3 guys and 4 girls on the trip. My last trips were mostly all girls. We have a budget for our food, and that’s interesting, because the guys like to eat a lot. So we have to ration our food. But we all get along really well.

zion-ku-weeding-bush

Alex Kraatz trims a plant that is in the line of a fence being installed at Zion's nursery of native plants. The fence will keep deer from eating seeds. The park harbors native seeds for possible replanting projects in case a wildfire damages the landscape.

REI: How did you become an outdoor person?

Hurst: I think the biggest influence on me was my friends. In my family we did RV and tent camping and rode horses, but my friends grew up in extremely active families—backpacking, hiking, running, biking. So my friends rubbed off on me. 

REI: Some speculate that young people today are too indoors-oriented. True?

Hurst (that her to the right, holding a fine looking s'more): I might be kind of biased, because all my friends really are outdoor people. Most of my friends are into rock climbing. It just kind of depends what you get yourself involved in.

It’s not that young people don’t want to be outside. I think it’s easy to get distracted by a lot of stuff. Things get busy, especially in college. For a lot of the people on this trip, this is their first time doing anything like this.

A few of the guys don’t have very much camping experience, so it’s a learning experience for them, and they’re loving it. There’s one guy who is so in awe of everything and now wants to do this all the time.

It’s just getting exposed to it. That’s really the main thing. It’s finding people who will go out and do it with you. When I was little I actually didn't like getting dirty that much, so it's kind of funny that now I love it.

Sometimes it matters where you live. In Kansas, it can be hard to find a place to go be outside. We have lots of parks, and people are out playing Frisbee and doing what they can. So it’s kind of a misconception to say kids aren’t inclined to be outdoors these days.

REI What else do you do to keep active outdoors?

Hurst: I’ve been in a rock-climbing club at the University of Kansas for the last 3 years. I’ve gone lots of places with them. The club goes to Moab and [Nevada's] Red Rock Canyon every spring break, and there’s probably 20 or 30 of them there right now. But I had never been to Zion before so I really wanted to come here, see what it’s like here and work with the National Park Service.

REI: What’s a standout outdoor experience you’ve had recently?

Hurst: Last summer I went backpacking with 4 of my best girlfriends in Yosemite. We spent 4 days and 3 nights in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. It was awesome. It was probably my favorite experience I’ve ever had.

REI: Sweet. Thanks, Anna.

Posted on at 1:15 PM

Tagged: University of Kansas, Zion National Park, stewardship, students and volunteer

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