The Best Alternative

A story of service, impact and hot sauce

27431219351_cd0b6b7501_kMichael Estrada, Marshall ’79, a Los Angeles municipal law attorney, would never have imagined himself shovel in hand and knee-deep in a ditch, high in the mountains of Appalachia, working with those half his age to help West Virginians in need. But sometimes life takes you where you least expect it.

It all started when the alumnus was diagnosed with throat cancer. “It made me look at all the things that affected my life, and UC San Diego was an important one,” he says.

While undergoing treatment, Estrada read an issue of Triton featuring an article on a fellow alumnus who supports the university’s Alternative Breaks program. The student-run, student-led program gives volunteers the opportunity to embark on national and international service-learning trips as a meaningful way to give back to society. Participants engage with a wide range of community-based nonprofit groups and help address social justice issues ranging from poverty to environmental education to women’s empowerment.

Over spring break of 2016, Alternative Breaks students partnered with the nonprofit Appalachia Service Project to provide volunteer service to those in need in the most impoverished areas of Appalachia.

“For years, I’d been looking for something to reconnect with at UC San Diego,” Estrada recalls. “Alternative Breaks sounded interesting, and I recognized that it was time to start doing things I had put off.”

With his cancer ultimately defeated, Estrada engaged with the program and was quickly inspired by the students he met. “It was the notion of service that attracted me,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by the esprit de corps—the enthusiasm of the students for the program and the projects.”

After three years of providing support to the program, Estrada recently established the Michael Estrada Alternative Breaks Scholarship Endowment with a gift of $50,000 to help more students in need participate in the program. He also designated the newly established endowment as a beneficiary of his estate. But the story doesn’t end there.

“I think it’s so great that people who have already graduated are able and have an interest in participating in Alternative Breaks.”

Tanya Saucedo, AB Appalachia student participant

Estrada was invited by the Alternative Breaks team to participate as an alumni mentor for one of the program’s many trips, a chance to roll up his sleeves and really be a part of the impact. “I’ve always been impressed by the experiences and lessons learned that are shared by the students. I thought that I should maybe go and see it firsthand,” recalls Estrada. “I was fortunate enough to be asked to join Project Appalachia.”

alt_breaks_sidebarOver spring break of 2016, Alternative Breaks students partnered with the nonprofit Appalachia Service Project to provide volunteer service to those in need in the most impoverished areas of Appalachia. The team helped provide relief for residents whose homes were in danger of flooding due to torrential rains and poor drainage systems. The team was so efficient that they finished their first project early and went on to help with a carpentry project for another nearby family in need.

“We all really appreciated having Mike there and hearing his perspective on things,” says Alana Young, Marshall ’18, one of the trip’s two student service leaders. “He was extremely supportive and insightful. He really took us under his wing.”


The Alternative Breaks experience is designed so that the impact of the work stays not only with those served, but also with those making the difference. It is dedicated to creating globally conscious, active citizens who commit to lifelong service well beyond their time at UC San Diego. As part of the trips, students reflect daily on what they’ve learned from their project, with the goal of keeping alive the spirt of giving back long after the experience concludes.

Together, the Appalachia group reflected on their work and the issues of poverty and social inequality that they witnessed.

And they also shared several bottles of hot sauce. So far from his home in Southern California, Estrada made sure to equip the team with a necessity in the field. “Before we got to our destination, I insisted that we pull over at a market to get a bottle of hot sauce. It made me very popular,” he says. “We shared that bottle at every single meal and ended up buying a few others.”

According to Young, Estrada earned a new nickname—“Mike Cholula”—for his favorite brand of hot sauce. But more than a new moniker, Estrada gained an out-of-the-box life experience, one that made a profound impact on him, his fellow Breakers, and the many people they will help in the future.

Gratitude Goes Both Ways

Alternative Breakers are able to help others around the nation and world thanks to help they receive through donor provided scholarships and travel funds. Below are excerpts from their thank you letters to benefactors. 

“I also feel super blessed by the opportunity that Alternative Breaks has given me because I would have never learned so much about poverty. It was such an eye-opening experience and will be forever ingrained in my memory.”

-Leslie Yip, AB Hearts for Homes

“By being involved in Alternative Breaks at UCSD, I was able to gain a unique experience, a unique education, and a perspective I would not think I’d get or gain by participating in a classroom discussion, sitting in a lecture hall, or, I would argue, at UC San Diego. This is how your financial support helped me; it helped me grow in many ways both interpersonally and professionally – allowing me to truly embody my Marshall “Scholar and Citizen” identity in different capacities.”

-Wilson Deng, AB Project Appalachia


“I came back from Peru determined to continue doing service once I got back. I applied into a program called global ties here at UCSD and got accepted to a solar water heater project. The group focuses on working with an orphanage in Tijuana to provide a solar water heater to be able to give them a working hot water system. I was very excited about being able to use my engineering knowledge to be able to provide for someone else.”

-Ayusma Karki, AB Vida Medica

“That donation helped me discover so much about myself. I was able to realize that I am a lot stronger and confident than I believe, and the true value of teamwork. I was also able to realize the amount of privileges that I have. This was also a great opportunity for me to visit different states and see the actual differences that I have only heard of.”

-Tanya Saucedo, AB Project Appalachia


“Not only did Alternative Breaks also helped me shape my future career goals, it helped me develop skills that I have never imagined. I became more confident in my public speaking skills and am no longer afraid to speak my mind in a large crowd. I was able to exercise this skill during the scholarship reception when I spoke to you [Caitlin and Patricia Weil, donors] and other scholarship recipients about my trip.

-Shw Lew, AB Project Appalachia

“Since getting back from my trip I have decided to continue my active citizenship journey by searching for a nonprofit in San Diego that really lines up with some of the values and social justice issues that are important to me. … My hope is to start my own nonprofit one day that focuses on community development in Latin American countries. I have been searching for a career that truly speaks to me and I can finally say that because of AB I have decided to choose a career that is completely dedicated to service. I want to spend my life helping others and creating an equal opportunity for people regardless of where they are born and I never would have come to that realization had it not been for Alternative Breaks and had it not been for your [scholarship].”

-Sienna Martinez, AB Believe in YOUth

Learn more about Alternative Breaks at UC San Diego or contact to take part.