1 of 6
Eric Schulzke, Deseret News
Students from the University of Virginia's Alternative Spring Break program viewing the sunset at Canyonlands National Park, shortly after being kicked out of their campsite in Southern Utah because someone else had reserved the site. The program has been entirely run by students since its inception in 1992, with no oversight from faculty, administration or alumni.

It's nearly dusk at a sandy campsite spotted with scrubby pine outside Canyonlands National Park. The camp is in chaos as 12 sunburned college students scurry to break down tents and cram supplies into a white, 15-passenger van.

It's a Friday night in mid-March, their last night of spring break in Utah before returning to the University of Virginia, and they're being kicked out of the campsite by a group of high school students who had reserved the site.

"You can reserve campsites online," says 20-year-old Will Slook, the UVA group’s co-director, with a weary shrug. "Who knew?"

He and his fellow students just spent a week in the Utah desert on an alternative spring break that blends service and adventure. While many of their classmates were binge drinking on beaches, these students were on an alcohol-free service trip building a mountain-bike trail, collating emergency brochures and hiking slot canyons — a trip planned and executed completely by students.

Students from the University of Virginia's Alternative Spring Break program consult on their next move after being kicked out of their campsite in Southern Utah because someone else had reserved the site. The program has been entirely run by students since its inception in 1992, with no oversight from faculty, administration or alumni. | Eric Schulzke, Deseret News

Campuses across the country offer similar programs, but UVA’s alternative spring break may be the only one with no faculty or administrative involvement of any sort. A registered nonprofit since 1992, the UVA program is run entirely by student volunteers, and all its site leaders and governing Board of Directors are current undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.

This spring, it served 341 students on 32 trips throughout the United States, as well as a handful in South America and the Caribbean. Many went to national parks to help park rangers, others went to New Orleans to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or to Pensacola, Florida, to work on poverty and hunger. Every year, students handle all the logistics, budgeting, transportation, training and risk management and train the next year's leaders beginning in April.

A group of college students planning a service trip may not rank high among young adult accomplishments, but this is a generation where for the first time in the modern era, more young men between 18 and 34 now live with their parents than live with a spouse or partner (35 percent vs. 28 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. Women are not far behind, with 29 percent at home and 35 percent partnered. That’s down from 1960, when 56 percent of men and 68 percent of women in that age bracket were married or partnered.

Meanwhile, job prospects for this age group continue to lag behind the economic recovery. In 2015, Pew reported that 51 percent of the 8 million unemployed were between 16 and 34.

The combined effect of young people not leaving home, forming families or launching careers is blurring the boundaries between youth and adulthood, says Michael Devine, a Texas-based clinician and author of the 2015 book, “Failure to Launch.” What Devine sees in his counseling practice, he says, is a surprising number of young adults who seem frozen by the complexity of life.

The antidote, Devine argues, should start very young — and it should involve the kinds of problem-solving and independent risk taking that the University of Virginia Alternative Spring Break has baked into its culture.

The campsite situation the UVA students faced in Canyonlands was minor as snafus go, but it offered the type of problem-solving opportunity Devine says is important. After a quick huddle to discuss options, the group drove out to Mesa Arch for the sunset and found an open campground nearby to camp for the night before driving to Salt Lake to catch their flight home.

“A student experience with no oversight that forces them to solve problems, make choices, figure out budgets and form consensus,” Devine said, ”is a path to adulthood.”

Students from the University of Virginia's Alternative Spring Break program viewing the sunset at Canyonlands National Park, shortly after being kicked out of their campsite in Southern Utah because someone else had reserved the site. The program has been entirely run by students since its inception in 1992, with no oversight from faculty, administration or alumni. | Eric Schulzke, Deseret News

Emerging adulthood

The UVA group in southern Utah combined three days of service with three days of exploration. One day they created a mountain bike trail on BLM land to help preserve sensitive habitat. Working with a nonprofit called Trail Mix, they used pick axes to cut debris and dig out cactus, shovels to smooth the path, and rocks and branches to mark the path. “It was grueling work,” Slook said.

They then spent two days wielding 11 staplers and one paper cutter, preparing 18,000 emergency brochures alerting visitors to unexpected closures in Arches National Park. Meantime, they did a lot of hiking, some slot canyon creek-fording and some rappelling.

One night, the group debated whether to do key destinations at sunrise or sunset. Slook was outvoted 10-2, he said, when the group decided to get up at 5 a.m. to hike to the famous Delicate Arch by sunrise. Slook had predicted the group wouldn’t pull it off. They proved him wrong.

Slook and his friends are bucking the trends Devine describes in his research. He decided to write his book, he said, after seeing a sharp uptick in young adults struggling to form commitments and make plans and decisions.

By the 1980s, researchers had begun noticing that “young people began to be increasingly narcissistic and self-focused, unable to take negative feedback,” Devine said. He pinpoints the shift to the coming of age of the children of the baby boomers, citing a 2010 study using the Narcissistic Personality Index that found significant increases in narcissism among young adults since 1994.

In his 2006 book, Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, framed “emerging adulthood” in neutral terms. By 2007, “Generation Me,” by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, was less sympathetic. Twenge described these new young adults as “disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful and anxious.”

Devine now makes a good living consulting with families and family-owned companies on how to handle the rising generation, and he argues that any solution has to include real autonomy at much earlier ages, with real capacity to fail and with real world consequences.

Students who go on a UVA alternate spring break, Moreth said, know they are giving up some safety and predictability in exchange for autonomy.

The Utah group’s director this year was Gabby Moreth, a 22-year-old senior majoring in political philosophy at the University of Virginia. If she and Slook had gotten in a real bind, their first point of contact would have been Gillian Kelly, a 20-year-old biology major who on previous spring breaks did trips to Death Valley and Zion National Park.

Students from the University of Virginia's Alternative Spring Break program pack up their tents to move after being kicked out of their campsite in Southern Utah because someone else had reserved the site. The program has been entirely run by students since its inception in 1992, with no oversight from faculty, administration or alumni. | Eric Schulzke, Deseret News

This year, Kelly stayed home, but she served on the program’s 14-member Board of Directors and was an emergency point of contact during the week. The only emergency call she got, she said, was from a group in Pensacola, Florida, that had been working with Habitat for Humanity, reporting that a murder had occurred down the block and the killer was not yet caught.

“Police were all over it, and it was really fine,” Kelly said. “She was pretty much just checking in, letting me know what had happened and promising to keep me updated.”

Freedom to fail

Virginia’s spring break program is just one of about 600 such independent organizations at the University of Virginia, and all but a handful of them are similarly autonomous and student run, says Sarah Kenny, the incoming Student Council president.

Kenny will now oversee UVA’s student activities program, controlling over $800,000 in student activity fees, again without any faculty or administration oversight. According to Kenny, student self-governance is a tradition that goes all the way back to the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.

“Resources are available to us if we ask for them,” Kenny said. “But we are not obliged to ask.”

Students from the University of Virginia's Students from the University of Virginia's Alternative Spring Break program pack up their tents to move after being kicked out of their campsite in Southern Utah because someone else had reserved the site. The program has been entirely run by students since its inception in 1992, with no oversight from faculty, administration or alumni. | Eric Schulzke, Deseret News

Students at UVA manage all honor code violations and expulsions, and they control a budget of student activity fees upwards of $800,000 a year. There are no faculty advisers and no administrative oversight for any of this, Kenny said, though there are resources available if desired.

Kenny and her student government colleagues have been researching a book on the self-governance tradition while also holding workshops and luncheons with faculty champions in an effort to secure the concept for the next generation. And Jeremy Jones, executive director of the Alternative Spring Break program, says his group is working to improve institutional memory of the program for future generations and is considering creating an advisory board with alumni.

Kelly says she recognizes that the organization could use more continuity in the leadership. Ten of the 14 board members this year are graduating seniors. This year, she says, she’ll be pushing to bring some sophomores onto the board.

It’s a very tight window. The older people generally have more experience, Kelly said, so they only have a few years to work with to gain experience and then lead. “It’s something we struggle with every year,” Kelly said.