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Interactions across difference through alternative breaks: The relationships between interaction, difference, and learning
Elizabeth Niehaus, Research Associate, University of Maryland [eniehaus@umd.edu]

Keywords: Alternative Break programs, quantitative, engagement with diverse others, National Survey of Alternative Breaks, national data set

Conference track: Higher education student outcomes

Format: Research/Scholarly paper

Summary
Using data from the 2011 National Survey of Alternative Breaks, this study explores the ways students experience difference through Alternative Break (AB) programs; the relationship between interaction, difference, and learning in AB programs; and the ways in which AB programs support students in learning from others different from themselves.. Data analysis included descriptive statistics, paired-sample t-tests, correlational analysis, and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM).

Although the existing research on AB’s points to the importance of engagement across difference, few studies have explored this aspect of AB programs in depth. The current AB research is also limited in that it consists almost entirely of qualitative case studies, mostly at single institutions, limiting generalizability. The purpose of this study is to explore students’ engagement with diverse others through AB’s using a large, national data set of AB participants. Specifically, this study sought to address the following three research questions:

1.To what extent and in what ways do students experience difference through AB programs?
2.What is the relationship between interaction, difference, and learning in AB programs?
3.What in AB programs supports students learning from others who are different from themselves?

The results of this study show that students report learning a great deal from their interactions with diverse others on AB programs, and they point to some of the ways in which AB programs facilitate this learning. For example, being emotionally and physically challenged appears to be related to learning from community members, host site staff, and other students on the trip. Group reflection, on the other hand, was only related to the amount students learned from their peers. Interestingly, the extent to which students felt that community members were different from themselves was a positive predictor of learning from the community, but there was a negative correlation (which disappeared in the HLM analysis) between difference and learning from host site staff. The findings from this study can help practitioners create more effective Alternative Break programs to encourage learning across difference.

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