Worst Spring Break Ever? Rollins College Students Spend Week Working As Immigrants

The words spring break in Miami conjure up images of beach parties, bikini-clad butt cheeks, and beer-drenched undergrads doing the dirty in Ocean Drive hotel stairwells. We've all been there, and we still don't remember how we got that butterfly tattoo on our lower back.

But for a group of Rollins College students, last week meant something else entirely: a hell of a lot of hard work.

A dozen guilt-ridden undergrads from Winter Park, Florida, came to Miami not to drink but to experience life as an undocumented immigrant through a program called Alternative Spring Break. First stop: the tomato fields and tree nurseries of Homestead.

"It was exhausting," admitted Ian Wallace, a Rollins junior with a serious sunburn from the previous day's work. "We were on our knees, in the dirt, with pesticides all over the place for five hours. I can't imagine doing this for 12 hours a day on minimum wage."

Day two: a low-income school in Little Haiti. So much better than South Beach!

"Yesterday was more labor-intensive," sophomore Kajsa Mashaw-Smith said as she helped corral unruly kids after school at Jesse J. McCrary Elementary. "Today is all about immigrant children, which is really why I came on this trip." What she was really looking forward to, however, was visiting immigration court later in the week.

Lucas Hernandez, the group's student organizer, said they aren't simply masochists.

"We make sure that the trip is fun, but also empowering," the Cuban-American explained. "The whole purpose is to get comprehensive sense of the issue of immigration. Not to get one side of debate, not to rely on the media, but to make us more conscientious people."

Yet even when the students tried to have a little traditional spring break fun -- attending a Miami Heat game Tuesday night -- they ended up suffering. The Heat blew another lead, losing its fifth straight.

"We got pretty into the game," Hernandez said. "It was a real bummer."

Was this the worst spring break of all time?

Not a chance, said the students. Just take a look at the scoreboard: hard work, yes. Awkward tattoos and hangovers, no.

"Miami's not going anywhere," Mashaw-Smith added with a grin. "Besides, I come down all the time. I went to the beach last week."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.