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Ethan Rohbrach at the San Antonio Hot Springs in New Mexico.

Credit: Courtesy of Ethan Rohrbach

For many, winter break is spent at home friends, attending family gatherings or binge-watching Netflix. But for College senior Monique Sager and College sophomore Ethan Rohrbach, break was no time to settle down and rest. 

Instead of spending his winter break at home in Ft. Worth, Texas, Rohrbach and a friend from San Diego decided to meet halfway between their homes. 

“The middle just happened to be New Mexico, and the first thing that came to mind was Carlsbad Caverns. A gallon of gas is also less than guacamole at Chipotle, so that pretty much was the deciding factor to go on this trip,” Rohrbach said.

En route to New Mexico, the two decided to try couch surfing. Stopping in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and not knowing what to expect, they met two extremely friendly guys who had offered up their guest room to couch surfers. The morning after arriving in Carlsbad, Rohrbach and his friend toured the caverns.

After a long day of spelunking — cave exploring — they went out to dinner with their hosts. They road in style in a special edition Call of Duty Jeep. On their way to dinner, their hosts showed them a special feature that allowed the jeep to go up the side of a cliff by unlocking its axels.

On one of their last days, Rohrbach decided to visit the San Antonio Hot Springs. After a six-mile hike, they ended up at hot springs that were on the side of a cliff with an incredible view. 

“It might have been the most beautiful place I’ve been on Earth,” he said

While hiking at the hot springs, the boys had stayed with “a crazy cat lady who was really into quilting,” as Rohrbach described. He and his friend decided to try their luck in Santa Fe for New Year's Eve. 

They couch surfed with a manager of a local brewery in Santa Fe and ended up going to a local bar for to watch the ball drop. After, they returned to their host’s house (with a lot of the employees of the bar in tow) to continue the party. 

“It was an experience that proved to me that by being a trusting and trustworthy traveler, the people you unexpectedly meet during your journey can be just as incredible and the places you planned to go,” he said. 

Sager's break also involved traveling, but with much more direction. She participated in a seven-day Penn service trip called "Alternate Winter Break." With 14 people and two leaders, this group worked to preserve the coral reefs in Key West. The reefs, which are being destroyed at a quick rate, absorb CO2, which in turn helps the environment.

“It was amazing how they managed to put together an eclectic group of people, and that we  just formed a cohesive group," she said. "Nobody slacked off, nobody complained. Everyone genuinely wanted to be there.” 

Sager and the rest of the crew she worked with stenciled storm drains to warn people not to throw their trash in them, hooked up buoys that had become detached and snorkeled into the deep to check moorings. The group also focused on social media outreach and education, specifically in a program called “Coral Camp” that educated the local elementary school children about the importance of coral reefs.

After getting off of work in the afternoon, the group was free to explore the town of Key West. Between watching street performers, eating entire key lime pies and getting private behind the scenes tours of the town, the group settled together every night and told their life stories. 

“Who we are at Penn, it’s very specific,” Sager said, explaining how the diverse group disassociated themselves from specific identities that they may put themselves in at Penn. She explains that the program was similar to her PennQuest experience. No one wore makeup, and everyone felt that they were encouraged to just be themselves.

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