At DePauw University, a small residential liberal arts university in rural Indiana, our students are challenged to be active citizens through their education and experiences at this institution. Within our office at the Hartman House that houses Spiritual Life, Community Service, and Social Justice, we try to talk to students as much as possible about the concepts of purpose, meaning, vocation, and what it means to live a life devoted to the common good of society. We set forth programming that is designed and structured to engage students in in-depth conversations and experiences throughout the academic year.
One avenue that our office engages students is through our community service center that hosts over 20 structured volunteer programs and has close to 20% of the campus volunteering on a regular basis. Over half of these participants are first-year students. Each community service site is led by a paid student leader who works with a community partner and recruits students for volunteer opportunities. We have found that consistent, organized structure with clear expectations, time commitments, and communication with students and the community allows a successful process of student engagement. We have community programs that have been going on for over 20 years due to structure and relationships that allows students easily to connect.
There are three major reasons why we encourage students to engage in community service.
First, there are mutual benefits of community service. While most service-based opportunities are perceived to be “helping others” you are also helping yourself through connection with other people. You have the chance to develop new skills and recent research is indicating that people who volunteer have multiple health benefits. Service is not just about helping someone else in need, but is an action with mutual benefits and outcomes.
Secondly, students are encouraged to break the university bubble and really get to know and become a member of the community they live in. In the book Transforming Fire one of the common outcomes of people who lived transformational lives was their ability and experiences to engage in “otherness”. The more our students engage in populations not like them, the more their internal empathy and compassion for others grow.
Finally, community service, volunteering, and service-learning is a retention issue. At just about every service-based conference I have been to in the past few years, there is almost always a presentation on service-learning and retention increase rates. Most research indicates that students who engage in service-learning activities are lease likely to drop out of college than their peers who are not engaged in service-learning activities.
So, if its #AfterOrientation and you are interested in establishing social capital, empathy, and compassion among students and the community or you are hoping to trying to increase your retention rates, then I would challenge you to challenge your students to engage in service after the first few weeks of class.
This post is part of our #AfterOrientation series, which focuses on what various institutions do when the buzz and bustle of orientation dies down. We will learn about programs, events, and initiatives that continue the support and excitement for the new students as they start their higher education adventure. For more information, check out the intro post by Juhi Bhatt. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!