(Ryan Hamilton) – The weeks before spring break were abuzz with media coverage of UNLV’s largely student (and therefore, also, taxpayer) funded “Alternative Spring Break” — a “service trip” for 27 undergraduates and three staff members to San Francisco.
The way the news was reported and the trip was advertised, one would think that Las Vegas doesn’t have a needy AIDS community worthy of assistance. Even if Las Vegas did, surely they couldn’t teach these brave, stereotype-defying, courageous students who were “giving up” their spring break to travel for less than $200 to San Francisco for a week.
It’s time to get real.
First, Las Vegas does have a community that both exists and is worthy of assistance — from those suffering from HIV/AIDS to students who had to delay or discontinue their studies at UNLV because of the poorly administered budget, not a dime of which should go to support projects like Alternative Spring Break or the miserable, anti-intellectual, anti-academic pit from which it sprung, the Office of Civic Engagement and Diversity.
Second, the unique intersections at which this community exists, with its transients, low statistical rates of education and many other problems, provide a world-class opportunity to learn about the very same problems this bunch flew to San Francisco to learn about.
Clark County has one of the best Catholic charities in the country — if not the world — run by a peerless man who has a graduate degree in business from the London School of Economics.
The Sin City Sisters — a group of gentlemen who dress up in drag and collect donations to provide medications for those who have HIV/AIDS but can’t afford them — must be one of the Valley’s most interesting, worthy, unique and active charitable organizations.
AFAN and I’m Positive both work to provide real service to locals with HIV/AIDS. I’m Positive’s director, Thomas Lahey, has great ideas about enabling those with HIV/AIDS to lead more independent lives. For instance, he has proposed a line-waiting service so that his clients do not have to take off or quit work to navigate the red tape that one must go through to obtain medical and financial relief services from the local and federal government. That’s innovative, enterprising thinking and it is happening right here in Las Vegas.
Third, a discounted trip to San Francisco isn’t exactly “giving up one’s spring break,” as the Review Journal’s Richard Lake put it. San Francisco is not Des Moines or Sheboygan. In fact, I can only think of a few cities that would be more desirable to visit on spring break. Let’s not pretend that this was some great sacrifice on behalf of students who otherwise would have been going to Boca or Puerto Vallarta for the $183 that took them to San Francisco.
Fourth, I prefer not to engage the sort of euphemism that is characteristic of a public enterprise wasting money by calling this a “service trip.” Since I didn’t go on the trip, I cannot be certain of the details of the itinerary. I do know, however, that it included tourist outings to at least Alcatraz Island and botanical gardens. Where I come from, this is called “leisure” or “vacation.” Service requires sacrifice — and nothing about what happened there can accurately be called that.
This community needs help. So often it is the victim of complaints by residents and visitors alike because it is lacking something — and with college students like those who went on the alternative spring break and an unthinking press, it is no wonder. The money that went to subsidizing airfare for 30 with hotel rooms and food for the same (not to mention any of the other inclusions) could have supported academic programs for many times the number of students who were dispatched to San Francisco to learn about HIV/AIDS and other urban troubles.
It could have likely allowed one disadvantaged student more than a year’s in-state tuition. I should just stop here. If I were to cover the whole list of better ways to spend that money, the whole of this newspaper would be taken up. Suffice it to say that instead, it went to these 27 students and their pet cause.
If all of this isn’t enough to solicit in you some feeling of indignation or outrage (perhaps shame — that is, if you went on the trip), well, this farce isn’t over. Footage posted to YouTube documents UNLV students on a taxpayer subsidized spring break trip protesting against the Hershey company, a private corporation. The protesters allege Hershey is discriminating against people with HIV at the private school they fund to provide high-quality education to low-income, disadvantaged students … in Pennsylvania. If only Hershey would fund spring break trips; then all would be well in the world.
In the thick of the protest can be seen Donovan Nichols — a UNLV employee. Some will see this as potentially unethical or unprofessional, possibly criminal. Others will find it somewhat ironic that San Francisco, of all places, needs our undergraduates and university staff to protest against discrimination towards people with HIV.
To be clear: This is not about learning about marginalized communities and their needs. Perhaps the one thing this trip got right is that everyone should be exposed to as many different types of people as they can and come to know their plight.
It is about the shameful way that this waste of money was promoted: spending what is likely to be more than the average Las Vegan’s yearly wage on a trip to do “service.”
It is about the absurdity and offensiveness that comes with sending students on the taxpayer’s dime to protest a private corporation.
But mostly, it is about improving this community. You know, the one we all live in. It is about exploring the many different things it presents to folks interested in helping out others who need it the most. It is about coming to know the people who already do it and do it well.
Yet, there is one lesson we can all take from this circus: service can and should start right here at home.