Mingled among the early springtime tourists in Washington this week are 23 students from the University of Notre Dame . In four vans, they drove 12 hours from their South Bend campus for an alternative spring break.p. This collegiate group isn’t the only one. Other students ? from Connecticut College, William and Mary, Loras, Clark, St. Joseph’s and more ? are here this spring. They encamp in church basements, youth hostels, spare rooms in homeless shelters, low-cost motels and alumni homes.p. They are plunging into the real city, the throbbing Washington that has the nation’s highest child poverty rate and the highest high school dropout rate, where social workers, public interest lawyers, clergy, health care specialists, teachers and others who, unapplauded, keep on delivering the works of mercy and rescue.p. These students come to gain a tutored clue or two on how political and policy decisions here relate to their community service at their home campuses.p. Alternative spring breaks took hold in the early 1980s. Students fanned out to tutor on Indian reservations, serve meals in big city homeless shelters, renovate houses in Appalachia, build homes with Habitat for Humanity, teach reading in prisons. International sites are now common for service learning. This week, student groups from American University are in Cuba and Honduras. Witness for Peace is taking students to Guatemala.p. Initially, fretful professors dismissed this experiential learning as academic whipped cream. Colleges now routinely offer courses tied to service. Classroom lectures, discussions and assigned readings coexist with the learning that results from what Notre Dame calls “academically based immersion opportunities.” Courses offered through its Center for Social Concerns ? the soul of the Notre Dame campus ? include “Power and Change in American Society,” “Students and Social Change,” “Leadership and Social Responsibility.”p. While it’s true that a spring break of ladling stew on a soup line or banging nails into floorboards can be an exercise in dabbling, the Washington experience is designed for a different outcome. Jay Brandenberger, Notre Dame’s director of Experiential Learning and Developmental Research, sees Washington not only as a site for students to do volunteer work but, more important, to “examine the structures that underlie complex social concerns.”p. Washington is Structure City, girded by the reality of what politics truly is: Who decides where the money goes. Literacy tutoring in a poor elementary school for a week is fine, but it’s hollow unless twinned with learning about governmental policies that allow poverty to persist or keep teacher salaries low.p. Serving food to homeless people a mile from the U.S. Capitol is useful, but it remains idle charity unless accompanied by knowledge about policies inside the Capitol that keep money flowing to build weapons but not affordable housing.p. While in Washington, Notre Dame students are meeting with governmental and advocacy groups on issues ranging from sweatshop labor to refugee law.p. Sarah Barr, assistant director of the Holleran Center for community action and public policy at Connecticut College, has brought students this week to volunteer in various social programs at N Street Village, 1133 N St. NW.p. Barr, 24, served as a Lutheran Volunteer Corps member in Washington two years ago, working to secure Social Security benefits for low-income clients. “The reason we come to Washington,” she says, “is to help students look at literacy from a national perspective and relate that to their volunteer work back in New London.”p. Jim Goodmann, director of campus ministry at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa, is bringing students to Washington April 7-13 and staying at the Community for Creative Nonviolence.p. “Washington is chosen,” Goodmann says, “because it is the government center. Students are invited to see the trip as involving a process ? exposure to the problems of poverty and homelessness, of experience in serving the people afflicted, of appealing to legislatures for policy changes and, finally, of direct nonviolent action before an often inattentive government and public. That this year’s trip is during Holy Week lends further drama to the experience.”p. Two of Washington’s most experienced hosts for spring break collegians are Bill and Sharon Murphy of Mary House, the 20-year-old low-income housing program at 4303 13th St. NE that currently serves more than 32 families. Students do yardwork, plant seeds, renovate apartments, haul furniture, tutor children, prepare meals.p. “At the start of the week,” says Sharon Murphy of her college visitors, "they are idealistic. They sincerely want to help the poor. But after meeting every evening with the trip organizers and us to talk about what they did during the day, they begin moving intellectually from what they thought they accomplished to struggling with questions about genuine social reform that can’t be answered on a spring break.p. “What’s my role in this? To help them understand that it’s natural to be overwhelmed. I like them to leave Washington with a taste of that, and perhaps with feelings of positive anger at the way things are. Back at their schools, decisions to get involved, or more involved, are often made.”p. In Washington, spring break learning is not about tests, homework, grades or other illusory measurements of growth. It is about disruptions, the personal kind: an awareness that changing the system means changing the self by questioning policies that allow poverty and racism to persist, and then acting on the answers. Spring breaks are about breakthroughs.