Students in kayaks

Program partnership introduces students to community service in the great outdoors

University of Florida students interested in the great outdoors have been finding an outlet in Florida Alternative Breaks since spring break 1993, when 21 Gators traveled down to Miami to help reconstruct homes damaged in Hurricane Andrew. The service trip was followed by a two-night camping excursion in Fiesta Key. Nearly three decades later, UF Student Life continues to offer trips that lie at the intersection of nature and community service.

Provided through the David and Wanda Brown Center for Leadership & Service, Florida Alternative Breaks places a focus on service, education and reflection. For the past few years, the organization has worked alongside the Center for Outdoor Recreation and Education, an area within the department of Recreational Sports that hosts nature-based adventure trips.

According to Braja Smith, assistant director for the Center for Outdoor Recreation and Education, this partnership has been a fruitful opportunity to highlight both organizations’ best qualities while also being more accessible.

“It’s offered a lower cost way for students to get all the benefits of being outside while also engaging in impactful service,” she said.

Students interested in getting involved in upcoming Florida Alternative Breaks or adventure trips can browse opportunities as they are posted on each of the programs’ websites.

Each trip typically supports up to 10 participants and is open to any undergraduate or graduate students currently enrolled at UF. Cost varies depending on trip length and location, but trips are often subsidized — making them a more affordable alternative to traveling solo or in small groups. Students can also apply for a scholarship to help cut the cost through Florida Alternative Breaks.

Each trip is accompanied by both undergraduate leaders and either a graduate student, staff member or faculty member. Interested students can apply to become a site leader through Florida Alternative Breaks or a trip leader through the Center for Outdoor Recreation and Education. 

The programs offer a wide range of local, regional and international opportunities. Trips formed through collaboration between the two organizations emphasize on both service and environmentalism.

“Students can understand the value of the world that we’re in, how to be good stewards of our world and how to respect and honor the Earth,” said Taylor Stokes, associate director for the Brown Center.

Past trips, for example, have prioritized trail maintenance. Since 2019, students have collaborated with the Florida Trail Association to remove overgrowth from a section of the Florida Trail located in St. Marks. Similarly, a backpacking trip to Cumberland Island, which is located off the coast of Georgia, and a sea kayaking trip to the Everglades also focused on restoring trails — as well as developing a rich understanding of each distinct area.

“The Florida ecosystem is very unique down there,” Smith said about the Everglades. “The trip integrated a lot of environmental history, connecting the dots and encouraging students to get involved in some of the management issues in Florida.”

Students pushing wheelbarrow of sticks

Students on the trip partnered with The Exuma Foundation to clear out space to build a playground. UF Student Life Photo

This year, the organization capped off spring semester with an expedition overseas, taking students on a weeklong trip to Exuma, Bahamas. There, participants partnered with local non-profit The Exuma Foundation to build a children’s playground.

While on-site, students engaged in a variety of physical tasks. They cleared out the back area of an in-progress children’s center, making room for the playground. Then, they primed and painted the building itself, which had gone half-finished since 2014.

The service element of the trip was supplemented by nature-based activities, such as kayaking and camping. Participants recalled taking in the Bahamas’ intrinsic beauty, wading through mangroves and watching the sunset from upon a sandbank.

Davis Orr, a second-year student on the Bahamas trip, said he was surprised by how well the group bonded early on in the trip.

“By the time we left and got back from the sea kayaking trip, it was like a whole different group showed up,” he said. “Honestly, we’re a family. We were like one giant family eating, sleeping and doing everything together.”

Trips are beginner-friendly and designed to introduce participants to the great outdoors. Smith said she hopes the expeditions will equip students with a sense of agency and empowerment, as well as the skills to exist comfortably and confidently in nature.

“I think a lot of students may have a sense of, ‘I want to do something, but I don’t know if I can, and I don’t know how to get involved,’” she said. “Hopefully, these trips will provide a doorway to seeing the value of believing in yourself and knowing that you can make an impact in the larger world.”

For Kristen Nethercott, a third year, the Bahamas trip allowed her to overcome much of her self-doubt, instead instilling her with a sense of fulfillment.

“At the end of the third day of kayaking, I felt so proud of myself and everybody around me,” she said. “It made me realize that there are a lot of things I can do if I put myself out there and try them. Things will pay off if I step outside of my comfort zone.”

Learn more about Florida Alternative Breaks.

Learn more about CORE adventure trips. 

Registration for CORE trips, including those organized in partnership with Florida Alternative Breaks, opens Aug. 31 at the “Early Bird Registration Event.” This will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at CORE, located at 1441 Bledsoe Drive.

Writer: Veronica Nocera,

Sources: Braja Smith,;
Taylor Stokes,