Helping Hands

The world we live in is not perfect: Our capitalist system provides us with enviable financial benefits and opportunities, but it also takes its share of victims, not a few of them children, minorities, and the elderly. Recognition of that fact has sent generations of college students in quest of positive social change. Political activism was the hallmark of the Boomer generation. Today's college students tend to take a more pragmatic approach, privately putting their own two hands (and mind and heart) to work to better the lives of people in their local community.

This low-profile volunteer service is being documented by the Campus Compact, a national coalition which promotes community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education. The Campus Compact conducts a yearly survey of its membership, which represents some five million students, and the survey shows that in this decade, volunteer service has been steadily on the rise on college campuses throughout the US: "Overall, the survey results show that service, service-learning and civic engagement have not only become a standard facet of the higher education experience but are continuing to advance. The total estimated value of service contributed to communities by students at all Campus Compact member schools is $4.45 billion a year."

The compelling interest that today's college students have in volunteer service has prompted Norwich University to staff both a Volunteer Service and a Service-Learning Office. Volunteer service takes place outside the classroom, both in a student's free time after classes or on weekends, and during "alternative" vacation breaks. For instance, instead of spending a week baking in the sun on a Florida beach, students travel to disaster areas and assist with reconstruction efforts, wield hammers for Habitat for Humanity, or serve as respite caregivers for disabled children. Service-learning projects allow students to master an academic subject through the practical application of a lesson. Some examples of service-learning projects might be civil engineering students working to design a septic system for a Boy Scout hostel, geology students analyzing the run-off from local landfills, or architecture students working with city planners to redesign downtown parking.

Typically, the only reward for the successful completion of such projects is the satisfaction of a job well done. However, the Vermont chapter of Campus Compact has instituted several awards to recognize the valuable services provided to local communities by student and faculty volunteers. This year's award reception took place March 30 at the Vermont State House in Montpelier.

The following are profiles of several award recipients and finalists.

Defining Moments in Volunteer Service

Jamie Lynn Maynard

 

When Jamielynn Maynard, a junior at Norwich University, was volunteering at a local woman's shelter recently, she took a call from a battered, pregnant woman in Florida.

Maynard had known victims of domestic abuse while growing up, so she understood how important it was to get this expectant mother the help she needed fast. Maynard quickly made arrangements to get the woman back to Vermont, where she safely delivered her baby and started the process of putting her life back together.

By volunteering in her spare time, Maynard is making service to the community an important part of her education. "I learn so much more by being involved in these activities rather than just reading about them," she said.

Maynard has been volunteering at the shelter, and counseling victims of domestic violence at the Barre District Court House, for more than a year. For her efforts she was recently nominated for the Madeline M. Kunin Public Service Award. The award recognizes one student from the Vermont Campus Compact for outstanding public service.

While working on a double-major in Criminal Justice and Psychology, Maynard said her experiences have helped her identify what she would like to do after graduation.

"I want to be a court advocate for victims of domestic violence. I'd like to do something to change the stigma around domestic violence," she explained. "It's such a hidden crime. Unless you have a bruise or some other sort of physical proof, the victims can't really do much about their situation. I want to make sure women know how to document incidents of domestic violence so they can get help."

Engineering a Safer World

Professor John Stevens of the Crawford School of Engineering at Norwich University tells his students, "You know, you don't have to do everything for money. You can use your talents relatively simply to make life a lot better for some people." One of his online graduate students promptly emailed back, requesting his notes for a simple water filtration system. That particular student is currently stationed in Afghanistan, where, according to UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia, "one child in five die[s] before his or her fifth birthday as a result of common, but preventable childhood diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, typhoid and others that could be prevented by simple immunizations and sanitary practices."

Stevens has embraced service-learning as both a worthwhile community service and the best way to engage his students. "The students get a kick out of the real-world situations, and they tend to be more earnest about doing a project right, rather than just doing it. And when they come back and see completed projects that they designed, themselves, they say, 'Wow, that's great!'"

Undergraduate students do not typically have the time or resources to perform actual construction work; their semester-long contribution is their time and talent in creating solutions to problems presented by local communities and civic organizations. Among the design projects completed by Norwich engineering students are pedestrian bridges and bicycle paths for recreation committees; well-drained recreational fields for local schools; wastewater treatment systems for Boy Scout camps; bank stabilization plans and water system improvements for local municipalities -- after fifteen years of service-learning, the list is long and varied. Occasionally, a freshman class will survey a site in the fall semester, so that a senior class can follow up with design work in the spring. This requires a great deal of planning on the part of the professor.

Stevens admits, "It's a lot more work than just teaching out of a textbook, but the kids like it a lot more."

Action Required: Making Democracy Work

"I'm one who really believes that abstract knowledge is not very useful, unless you can connect it to not only some sort of activity outside the classroom, but something that really benefits other people," says Professor Rowland Brucken of the History and Political Science Department at Norwich University. Brucken often creates courses based on what students tell him they would like to study. Recently, cadets anticipating active duty assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan asked Brucken to teach a course on nation-building. Brucken responded by having them examine the varying success of nation-building practices in Germany, Japan, South Vietnam, the Balkans, and Haiti. As the service-learning portion of the class, Brucken sent them out to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to study the vital role civil society plays in a working democracy.

"NGOs contribute to the democratic culture … formal government does not operate very well in the citizens' interest without these organizations, because few people lobby directly with the legislature," explains Brucken. Cultures that are not democratically-oriented have trouble adopting a democratic form of government largely because this informal civil infrastructure is missing. Examples of Vermont NGOs researched by the Norwich history students are a worker's union, a charitable organization supporting low-income housing initiatives, a minority political party headquarters, a fish and game club, and a lobby group wishing to legalize controlled substances. Each NGO involved received a minimum of 10 hours of service from the research students, creating a bond between the university and the local community which Brucken and the Service-Learning Office hope to capitalize on for further service initiatives.

Another of Brucken's class projects sent a freshman class to a local nursing home, to interview residents about their personal experiences during World War II, the class subject. Students wrote up the interviews and presented them as gifts to the families of the nursing home residents. "I'm hoping it spurs [students] to do this with their own parents. They've learned first-hand what some folks have gone through in a way that I couldn't make as interesting in the classroom."

Brucken admits that the preparation time for classes with a service-learning component is much higher than for a textbook-based course. "I think my students, from evaluations, get a lot out of it. They get to practice what they're learning in class; it gets them off-campus and out of the classroom; and it forces them to participate in problem-solving in unfamiliar situations beyond their comfort zone, to become more engaged people."

Building Momentum

Kim Sorber

While still a freshman at Norwich University, Kim Sorber was identified by the senior serving as president of the campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity as his most likely successor. "He started dragging me to all the affiliate meetings, all the off-campus stuff, on-campus stuff, introducing me to people I would need to know, so that this year I would be prepared to take on the president's [role]." Those unfamiliar with the culture of the Corps of Cadets at Norwich will find it difficult to understand how awkward it was for Sorber to associate at that level with a senior. For the sake of the chapter, they made it work.

This year, Sorber has dedicated between 25-30 hours a week to building membership in the chapter, identifying and organizing projects, and fund-raising to pay for the travel and expenses of participating members. Membership has grown from just a handful to over 50 enthusiastic students, faculty, and staff. During spring break, they sent 21 people to assist with hurricane relief efforts: one team to New Orleans to "mud out" damaged houses and one to Gulfport, Mississippi, to build. On weekends during the academic year, they travel to Sugarbush to work on a house there.

Sorber finds she enjoys talking with the home owners, who work alongside the volunteers. "You learn about their life. You learn about where they're coming from. Usually, they're really open and very gracious, so they have no problem talking to you about anything under the sun. It really creates a civic engagement, where the school pulls itself into the community, and the community becomes part of the school. Sometimes, we feel a little ostracized, because the Norwich ethos is a lot different than the Vermont cultural environment to begin with, so it's a really good way to create some engagement."