December 2009 Issue
Students at Ohio’s colleges and universities are leaders in community service.
Every fall, a new crop of students heads off to college in search of the education they need to cultivate a career after graduation. But in the blur of applications and entrance exams, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that colleges and universities are designed to teach kids more than just a marketable skill.
“Every institution has the mission to educate students to be engaged citizens,” says Richard Kinsley, the executive director of Ohio Campus Compact, a nonprofit coalition of the state’s colleges and universities dedicated to
advancing the civic purposes of higher education. “The challenge is how do they actualize that mission.”
The emphasis of the Obama administration on active citizenship has put the spotlight back on programs that advocate civic and social responsibility and improve community life. For many students, says Kinsley, civic work was also incorporated into their K-12 education, and they arrive at college primed to seek out ways to get involved in their new environment. “More and more, campuses are advertising to students opportunities for civic engagement,” explains Kinsley, “and the students are taking them.”
Since the Ohio affiliate of the National Campus Compact began in 1992, 50 of Ohio’s two- and four-year colleges and universities have joined the organization. Here, some examples of outstanding civic-minded programs on four Ohio campuses. For more information about the OCC and its members, visit ohiocampuscompact.org.
The Village of Rio Grande is home to about 1,000 residents, but when classes are in session at the University of Rio Grande, the students more than triple the population of this rural community located about 15 miles from the Ohio River in
Given the small size of the village and university, a symbiotic relationship between the two communities is essential. But a recent five-year plan to revitalize the Rio Grande Memorial Park — proposed by a faculty advisor for the school’s Greek community — has Rio students going the extra mile.
The park sits across the street from the future site of a state-of-the-art
elementary school, explains Rio Grande Mayor Matt Easter. “It’s a beautiful park, but the playground has fallen into disarray,” he says. “We wanted to create something that is family friendly —
a place where parents can come an hour before school or stay an hour after and have time with their kids.”
Easter says that when Amy Miller, a periodical and government documents associate at the university as well as the advisor for the Delta Theta sorority, approached him with the idea to use student manpower to facilitate the park’s clean up, he knew they had a win-win situation.
The project kicked off in August, when about two dozen student volunteers from Rio’s fraternities and sororities descended upon the park to pick up trash, pull weeds and repaint signs. “One guy swam out into the pond to pull out an old tire,” says Pat Snyder, a senior from Woodville and the president of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. Snyder says students also had the opportunity to share their ideas for improving the park and help the group set short- and long-term goals for the much-needed improvements. “My dad is in construction, so he helped with plans for creating the new playground, and suggested that we use chips made out of old tires underneath it for safety,” he says. Other goals for the project include installing benches, planting flowers, redoing trails and constructing a “Greek Gazebo” marked with the letters of each fraternity and sorority to symbolize the students’ work.
Stephanie Michelle Egan, a sophomore from Pickerington and member of the Delta Theta sorority, says the experience of working together to pick up the trash in the park helped her to get to know fellow Greeks as well as the community a little better. “Since Rio is so small, we sort of knew each other before, but it gave us a chance to really meet and talk about our ideas.”
Egan adds that she hopes the new and improved park will be a social spot for the village, too. “I like [the close-knit character] of a small town, and I think having a park like this is a good way for people to get to know their neighbors,” she says.
“I got an adrenaline rush being involved with the clean-up,” says Snyder, who counts himself among those who have already benefited from the groups’ hard work. “My dad and I went fishing there when I first came down my freshman year, and it wasn’t very nice,” he says. “There were trash cans dumped over, and weeds and garbage everywhere.” Last fall, during the Bob Evans Farm Festival, Snyder and his father revisited the park to fish off its newly installed dock. “My dad couldn’t believe it was the same place,” he says.
The nationwide increase in autism awareness has benefited children who have this unique set of needs. But while early childhood diagnosis and intervention is the best it has ever been, for some families, finding resources and services for their late-adolescent and young-adult children with autism
remains a huge challenge.
“The transition to adult skills in our community was lacking,” says Fred Coulter, Ph.D., associate professor of education at Defiance College, a 1,000-student campus in the northwestern corner of the state. According to Coulter, difficulty finding resources for their autistic son is what led Eric and Deb Hench to the Defiance campus three years ago, and ultimately to the creation of the college’s Hench Autism Studies Program the following year.
The program — one of only a handful of campus-based programs serving the autism community — features an on-campus classroom for late adolescents with autism and a coalition of resources that includes peer mentors and a resource and referral center for families. Coulter, who serves as the program’s parent partnership coordinator, says the classroom has special features such as indirect lighting and a heating/cooling system that disperses air gently. These were installed to accommodate the sensory needs of the students. In class, teachers help students learn to prepare nutritious meals, organize their own schedules and other life skills. Some of the kids even post to a classroom blog about field trips, favorite video games and other teenage-type topics.
Getting out on campus is also part of the curriculum. “One of the major difficulties for students with autism is social interaction,” explains Coulter. Defiance peer mentors provide socialization by meeting program students for lunch in the cafeteria or for other activities. During the week, mentors help students operate two coffee carts on campus, which hones social skills as much as business and math skills, Coulter says.
Austin Kleman, a senior from Sydney studying molecular biology and preveterinary medicine, became a peer mentor three years ago. Initially, he says, he worked with two students, helping them run the coffee cart three days each week. These days, scheduling conflicts prevent him from devoting as much time to the program, but for him, the rewards continue to be abundant. “Seeing the progress of the kids over three years has been the most incredible part for me,” he says, remembering one student who was particularly quiet in the beginning. “He wouldn’t talk to me or make eye contact at all for two weeks,” Kleman recalls. It was a slow process, but eventually the boy began to talk and engage; not long after, he would greet Kleman like an old friend. “By the beginning of the next school year, he was initiating conversation, staying on topic and making eye contact — it was amazing,” he says. “And it was an incredible learning experience for me how just a few hours a week really can make a difference.”
Tell a sixth grader that science is fun and you’ll be lucky to get a response. Show a sixth grader how to use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream and science might suddenly be his or her new favorite subject.
“We try to talk with kids about something they’ve been exposed to,” says Gretchen Lockhart, a senior majoring in chemistry and the president of the chemistry club at the College of Wooster. Club members head out into local elementary classrooms during the school year to give kids a fun-but-educational dose of hands-on science. “Sixth graders learn about the nitrogen cycle in class, so we do demonstrations pouring milk, sugar and vanilla into a big metal bowl, then add the liquid nitrogen,” causing a fog-like cloud of condensed water vapor to surround the bowl, she says. “It’s actually really easy, but it looks pretty cool.”
Outreach into area elementary schools is also a regular activity for Wooster’s physics club. “We’ll usually do hour-long demos on topics such as forces in motion or light and sound waves,” says Heather Moore, club president and a senior majoring in physics. “The focus is to involve the students and get them asking questions,” she says. “We want to show that science is exciting and that there are people who are excited to teach them about it.”
In 2009, both clubs were recognized by their national organizations, the American Chemical Society and the American Institute of Physics, for their outstanding achievements and outreach programs — programs such as the college’s first annual Community Science Day, which the physics club organized last spring. “We wanted to emphasize learning as a family thing,” says Moore who, with fellow club members, helped to recruit teams of students from all six of the college’s science departments for a day of science of the spectacle kind. Families looked on as student scientists studied light emitted by an electrocuted pickle, ate marshmallows dipped in liquid nitrogen and watched volcanoes explode.
Lockhart, who plans to teach middle school after she finishes her education, believes volunteering will always be a part of her life. “I think when you have worked hard to become an expert, it’s not really worth it if you can’t share it with other people,” she says. “They say when you teach you learn, and that’s true, because working with these kids, I’m always learning.”
The irony of active citizenship for students at Wittenberg University in Springfield is that volunteering is not on a volunteer basis.
“Sometime before their senior year, students must register for Community Service 100, and complete the course requirements,” explains Kristen Collier, Wittenberg’s director of community service. Course requirements include 27 hours of volunteering in the field and three hours of reflection, which involves activities such as peer discussions and meeting with advisors to assess the experience. “We tell them serving without reflection is like eating without digestion,” says Collier. “We want them to think about how they will continue to incorporate service into their lives.” Students also write an essay about their experience.
The Community Service office compiles a list of service opportunities, or, says Collier, students can opt to do a self-designed project, provided their idea meets university standards. “We really encourage kids to tap into their own gifts and talents,” she says. “There’s a saying we like to use [from Noni Strand, Campus Pastor at Bethany College]: ‘not what is in it for me, but what is in me for it.’”
Junior Adam Burdsall from New Carlisle took that message to heart. A puppeteer since the age of 8, Burdsall volunteered at the Warder Literacy Center in Springfield, where he and his puppet “Cordon Blue” wrote and performed skits dealing with literacy and other challenges facing this group of young people. Another student, Collier says, used his computer science background to help a local alternative school repair and refurbish computers for students.
For many, the satisfaction of volunteering keeps them involved long after their 30 hours are completed. Leslie Chasteen, a senior communications major from Cincinnati, has worked as the coordinator of the Community Service Program since her sophomore year. She also coordinates the Thursday section of Girl Power, an after-school program for seventh- and eighth-grade girls that focuses on helping them make positive choices about fitness, nutrition, social pressures and setting goals. Chasteen says this weekly escape from campus helps take her out of the “me, me, me” part of her day. But her big reward came when two graduates of the program offered to come back as volunteers. “It showed me that what we did mattered to them, that they saw value in the experience we were providing,” she says.
For other students, the 30 service hours create momentum that spills over into other parts of their lives.
Junior Brendan Corrigan, a management major from Westlake, found a similarly rewarding experience. As the philanthropy chair for the fraternity Beta Theta Pi, Corrigan says he was looking for a local organization to get involved with when he discovered the Infusion Campus at the Springfield Museum of Art, an arts-centric after-school program that also offers homework help and tutoring. Now, fraternity members volunteer at the program on a weekly basis. “We help with tutoring, play games, do outdoor photography … last week we played four square, then had a music lesson before we broke up into our tutoring groups.”
Program director Nuggie Liebcap told the Springfield News-Sun that she welcomes the presence of strong male role models. For Corrigan, it has also brought about self-reflection. “When I first came to college, I didn’t realize that some kids struggled with basic skills like reading and math,” he says. “It taught me how blessed I’ve been, and to appreciate the education I received. Through this experience I know now more than ever how important it is to give back.”
Apparently, Corrigan isn’t the only Wittenberg student to share this belief. “We have 19 volunteers for the Thursday section [of Girl Power],” says Chasteen. “[And] none of them are doing it because they have to.”