Spring Break typically offers college students a brief pause from the daily grind of classes, essays and late-night study sessions.

But the work never stopped for a group of Rutgers University-New Brunswick students who dedicated their week in March to making a difference in and around New Orleans, where communities are still attempting to fully bounce back from Hurricane Katrina's devastating blow in 2005.

The students, who were just toddlers when Katrina hit, did their part to protect the local wetlands by, among other activities, planting over 4,000 grass plugs across four miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico.

Once rooted, the plugs help protect the area from additional erosion and create a barrier between bird habitats and sediment deposits containing fertilizers.

"We worked from early in the morning until dinnertime, so we actually got to see all of the progress we made," said co-site leader Gianna Midure, a junior studying supply chain management and psychology. "It was really nice for our trip's participants to see a visible representation of the service they were doing, it was like, 'wow, we did that.'"

First-year student Roja Vanaparthi plants a grass plug (Photo:Larry McAllister II)
First-year student Roja Vanaparthi plants a grass plug (Photo:Larry McAllister II)

Site leaders planned the trip because they were curious about the lasting effects of the historical storm.

Their seven-day trip was one of eight service-learning projects planned and led by Rutgers students this March, and one of 18 trips over the course of the year.

Larry McAllister II, the staff partner who took the trip as well, said students paid a fee upfront to cover their travel, housing and meals.

"They could be spending this money on just a trip to go to Cancun or wherever, but they're spending it in order to go do service," McAllister said.

Beyond planting grass plugs, the small crew also helped plant and care for cypress and yaupon trees at Bayou Savage. Both tree species were hit hard by Katrina. Students took part in daily information sessions as well, and spoke with biologists at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

"This trip was really helpful for me, it allowed me to have a more personal connection to what I'm studying," said Eva Tillett, a Rutgers junior who wants to work for the U.S. and Wildlife Service. "I got to see exactly what the work was like, and what technology and information I need to focus on when I'm in my classes."

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.d

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