At your service
Students invest their energies in volunteerism
|Fourth-year student Sally Wood volunteers as a Big Sibling. Here, she helps her “little sister” ice skate.
The undergraduate experience
The fifth in an occasional series
By Dan Heuchert
The college years are potentially among the most self-indulgent in a person’s life. Day-to-day parental supervision is over; the demands of full-time employment are looming in the future. It’s a time to taste new freedoms and test limits.
The overwhelming evidence suggests, however, that U.Va. students are very concerned with the world beyond their own spheres, and they act on these concerns — in huge numbers. Often, their public service changes their lives.
“When you look at the number of our students who end up joining the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or deciding to work for nonprofits, one can conclude that service is a major part of the undergraduate experience — so strong that it influences students’ decisions about careers,” said Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president for student affairs.
“The unique part is that our students take on major responsibility, directly reflecting our commitment to student self-governance,” she added. “The program directors at Madison House, for example, are totally in charge of the programs that they manage and lead.”
Madison House is a logical place to start when searching for students’ public service activities.
Founded in 1865 as a YMCA chapter — it was the builder of Madison Hall and its tenant for more than a century before severing formal ties to the YMCA in the 1970s — Madison House administers programs that serve 17,000 local residents per year through 70 different partner community agencies.
Collectively, 3,000 University student volunteers give more than 100,000 hours of their time annually through Madison House. They coach youth soccer teams, “adopt” grandparents, tutor schoolchildren, care for animals at the SPCA, build and repair houses, help migrant workers, counsel the troubled, feed the hungry, befriend the homeless and care for the ill.
“We’re one of the largest organizations in the nation doing campus-based service,” said executive director Cindy Fredrick, who estimates that more than half of the undergraduate student body will volunteer through Madison House at least once before graduation.
Madison House accomplishes all of this with a full-time staff of just four people. Student leaders recruit volunteers, train them and manage the day-to-day contact with community agencies. Students make up a third of the governing board, with another third drawn from the faculty and staff and the balance from the community.
Though Madison House is the most visible outlet for student public service, it is only one of several available options. Another volunteer clearinghouse — the Virginia Service Coalition —matches volunteers, both individuals and groups, with local groups in need, and bestows end-of-year recognition awards. An array of organizations offer students service opportunities — locally and around the world.
Taking advantage of these opportunities only enriches the U.Va. experience, Lampkin said.
“The ways in which students transfer the knowledge they obtain in the classroom or working in labs to the community, and in turn the experience and additional knowledge students learn from such exchanges, are integral to their education,” she said. “The benefits of service work both ways — the community gains from students’ involvement and participation, and the experience is essential to students’ overall development.”
Matt Kindig found the corporate engineering environment to be a turn-off after a post-first-year internship, and sought something different. “I’ve always been interested in international development issues and the nonprofit, public-service aspects of engineering,” he said.
In spring 2003, he co-founded a local chapter of Engineering Students Without Borders, for which he still serves as president. Between earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering last May and starting graduate study here in August, he led a six-student delegation to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where the group took on five different projects, ranging from constructing a large-scale solar distiller using the roof of a bus to evaluating the potential food and medicinal value of native plants.
After earning a master’s degree in 2006, Kindig hopes to join the Peace Corps before pursuing full-time work in a nongovernmental organization.
“It’s really rewarding,” he said. “I enjoy working in communities, doing community-oriented, grassroots engineering with a sustainable approach.”
Certainly, the University seeks to encourage experiences such as Kindig’s that apply classroom learning to real-world needs, and has come up with several mechanisms to do so.
About a quarter of the Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards fund projects with an element of public service, according to Nicole Hurd, who administers the program as part of her duties as director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.
There are also for-credit service options. Since 2001, through private support, the Center for Global Health has sponsored a scholarship program to support students doing independent research abroad. This summer, 27 students will oversee 18 projects in Africa, South America and India.
“They are all over [the map],” said April Ballard, the center’s program coordinator. “We are constantly amazed at their sense of social responsibility, and where that takes them.”
Fourth-year students have long performed public service through the University Internship Program, where director Nancy Gansneder estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of student interns work in nonprofit or governmental organizations. They earn four credits in exchange for 10 hours per week of work and participation in a weekly seminar.
Seeking to encourage such altruism, the Virginia 2020 Commission on Public Service endorsed a proposal to allow students to earn additional academic credit by linking any of their courses to a public-service application. With approval from their instructor, they could earn the fourth credit by completing a paper, presentation, journal or project detailing their efforts.
Students, however, resisted the fourth-credit option, reasoning that it would only add self-interest into a process that works well without it.
“They overwhelmingly told the commission that service was in and of itself valuable without having an academic reward tied to it,” Lampkin said. “There was some concern on students’ parts that adding the fourth-credit option would detract from an already strong commitment to volunteerism and service.
“I believe it underscores the inherent connection between service and education and exemplifies the value derived from service itself.”
Refreshing, isn’t it?