Education - Page 8 - Giving back brings value

- Page 8
Giving back brings value
Community service on the agenda for students

By Elizabeth Schuman, Contributing Writer

While political divisiveness might close doors to conversation in some circles, at campuses such as Frostburg State University, professors are using the opportunity to invite dialogue and promote service, while imparting lessons about civility and respect. Since 2016, the campus has held campus Town Hall meetings, led by and geared toward students.“We come together to discuss issues civilly, to be an informed electorate, to participate and to know you can change the world,” says Tim McGrath, executive director of the J. Glenn Beall Jr. Institute for Public Affairs and a lecturer in the political science department.

The Beall Institute, along with the university’s Student Government Association and the Office of Civic Engagement sponsor the Town Halls, held three times a semester to encourage civic engagement on campus. Attendance ranges from 50 to 65 per session, although as many as 90 students have attended. Faculty and staff are invited, as are local and state politicians, but are not invited to speak. Instead, students lead the conversation, bringing note cards and research to support their arguments. “It’s powerful for students to hear one another talk about the issues. We frame Town Hall meetings with the question: What is democracy in the first place?

What is participation?” says McGrath, formerly a legislative aide with U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.“We want our students to understand the implication of their vote.”

Student voices lead to local changes. “When students, especially those from ‘downstate’ (Baltimore region) told us they didn’t realize shops were on Main Street and didn’t venture there, we created Frostburg 101, campus tours and visits to bring businesses and students together,” says Patrick O’Brien, director of civic engagement. “We held a Candidates’ Forum to invite students to learn about the candidates’ stance on issues and held voter registration drives. The concept is to keep students involved in the democratic process by learning about the structure that exists.”

Frostburg junior Tyler Bauer, 20, led the university’s Democratic Club in fall 2016 and became involved in Town Hall meetings. “We are seeing a renaissance in how people go about civic dialogue,” he says. Referencing language and tone used in the 2016 election, Bauer notes, “You don’t need to have a Ph.D. in rhetoric to be heard. But, you still need to know how to be respectful and be civil even if you disagree.”

Bauer, a criminal justice major with a sociology minor, sees value in community service programs such as a Town Hall. “It’s an important process and a stepping stone to talk about issues here and learn to advocate once we leave Frostburg.”

Not everything has been rosy. The 2016 election and aftermath brought topics of racism, immigration and gun control to the forefront. “During a post-election Town Hall, African-American students talked about being afraid and walking down the street hearing the ‘n’ word. One white student says she never perceived this negativity,” says McGrath. When the Town Hall ended, recalls McGrath, he saw the two students talking. “Through these moments, we can begin to understand each other better. Through face-to-face conversation, we cultivate language that does not offend. We teach how to disagree without being disagreeable.”

About 150 miles from Frostburg, in Baltimore City, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Hannah Cooke charges ahead with volunteer schedules. Based at the Notre Dame of Maryland University (NDMU), the Cottey College (Missouri) graduate works for the university’s York Road Education and Service program, which seeks to improve academic outcomes and college pathways for students at Govans Elementary and Tunbridge Public Charter schools. Setting up a tutoring program at both schools, Cooke also formalized and wrote the Govans’ volunteer manual.

An English major, Cooke says she always loved to write and discovered her love of teaching at college. The Maryland native was excited to return home and help Baltimore City schools. “It was a lot of research, along with listening and hearing what parents wanted us to provide to
students. Everyone wanted tutoring in math and literacy.” Cooke assembled a corps of NDMU student volunteers to tutor in class and after school beginning in January.

Having two tutoring venues offers perspectives, says Sister Mary Kerber, SSND, director, campus ministry and service. Govans is affiliated with Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit supporting Baltimore City neighborhoods, and partners with faith-based programs, universities and community groups. Tunbridge, an elementary-middle school in Govans, is a charter school. “Service is about more than us feeling good. It’s a process in which we mutually transform each other,” says Sr. Kerber, who previously spent 31 years in Ghana.“People all over the world have a lot to teach us. We know the world that exists our way, but we need to see the world the way others see it.” Locally, the nascent tutoring program will reap benefits, she believes. “All kids are our kids. Through service, we learn that we are all in this together.”

Looking to the future, Cooke hopes she remains next year, although the AmeriCorps VISTA program often transfers volunteers annually. Still, she takes pride in building the schools’ tutoring and volunteer program. “Setting the foundation is exciting,” she says, adding that she imagines it helping students for years to come.

At Towson University, first-year and transfer students sign-up for community service well  before their first day of class. A fall pre-orientation program invites students to participate in a four-day slate of volunteer activities. Lisa Hill, coordinator, community service, in the Office of Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility, says that 100 students joined this fall. While settling into dorms early is helpful, another perk is the abundance of volunteer, hands-on activities the group performs at morning and afternoon sessions around Baltimore.

Working with 25 local nonprofits, representing diverse programs such as the Arc of Dundalk, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, students learn about social issues and the local nonprofit sector. “Students see how they can make an impact through service,” she says. “They gain context for upcoming coursework. They learn firsthand about social structures, politics and the people behind issues related to hunger and income disparity. It’s a way to develop a deeper empathetic understanding of the issues.”

After their first-year experience, some students join the program’s leadership group to plan the next year’s volunteer activities and act as facilitators. The first-year volunteer program complements the university’s community service culture. During the 2017-18 academic year, Towson University students performed more than one million hours of service. In a campus statement, Hill emphasized, “It’s important for students to step outside that campus bubble. Community service experiences provide students with opportunities to learn about their assumptions, expectations, and values and to do the work in cultural competency.” •

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Above left: Tim McGrath (far right), executive director of the J. Glenn Beall Jr. Institute for Public Affairs and a lecturer in the political science department at Frostburg State University, is moderating in a Town Hall meeting with students. The meeting was on Oct. 30, 2018 and the topic was the election.

Campus volunteerism boosts career trajectory

Beyond the GPA and major, today’s college students would do well to consider adding community service to their resumes. The 2016 Deloitte Impact Survey noted that volunteering may play a large role in building leadership skills considered “must haves” for successful leaders. Findings from the survey – targeted to people making or influencing hiring decisions – found 82 percent of respondents would be more likely to choose a candidate with volunteer experience on the resume and 92 percent says volunteering improves an employee’s broader professional skill set. The survey collected data from more than 2500 respondents in 13 major U.S. cities.

Frostburg student Tyler Bauer attributes his growing resume to volunteer experiences with the Town Halls and off campus. Most recently, he worked on Ben Jealous’ campaign for Maryland governor. “I learned how hectic elections are, what it means to be involved in an election and how important it is to have resources to reach statewide,” he says. He is continuing to work with the university’s Town Hall program and says he values meeting local and state politicians and community leaders. Post-graduation, he plans to work toward running for public office.

“My volunteer involvement helped me become politically active, galvanize my political activity and civic engagement.” He credits his professors with inspiring his love of politics and service and plans to teach someday: “I hope to have the same effect on someone else.” •