Community service extends learning and deepens commitment for undergraduates
By Karin Dienst
Princeton NJ -- Inspired by Woodrow Wilson's call-to-action, "Princeton in the nation's service," many students make public service a key component of their undergraduate years. Despite demanding academic and social schedules, students active in community service say that what they learn outside of the classroom enriches their overall Princeton experience and helps them build skills useful for upcoming careers.
"Community service is a vehicle for the broader mission of the academy in educating for a vibrant and highly engaged citizenry," said Sasa Olessi Montaño, director of the Pace Center for Community Service, which acts as a central portal for service activities at Princeton.
Campus resources available to students include the Pace Center, the Student Volunteers Council and Community House. Various fellowships and internships support the work of student volunteers, such as the Project 55 Public Interest Internship, the ReachOut '56 Fellowship and the Class of '69 Community Service Fund. Students also can focus on social issues and connect with local organizations through courses offered through the Community-Based Learning Initiative. Further, volunteer days annually provide service opportunities for the entire University community.
"Raise Your Voice: A Month of Action," the national awareness campaign for public service sponsored by Campus Compact, runs from Feb. 15 to March 20. In connection with the observance, four students talked to the Weekly Bulletin about their service activities.
Blending academics and service
Senior Anne Healy, who is from Keene, N.H., became involved in service in elementary school organizing neighborhood cleanups on Earth Day. In high school she volunteered at the local soup kitchen and with a school group. "I've always tried to be aware of needs that aren't being met and address them in whatever way I can," she said. She has found many ways to turn this outlook into action while at Princeton.
During freshman pre-orientation, Healy participated in Community Action, volunteering with the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton. She later led two Community Action groups herself.
Also during freshman year, Healy got involved with Community House as a project coordinator for the program Health Matters, which works to improve health awareness among children in the larger Princeton community. The program offers three-week cycles of one-day workshops for underserved elementary school children involved with the Princeton Young Achievers educational program. "The project hopes to empower children by teaching them how to cope with health concerns that may affect them personally as well as to foster meaningful relationships between University students and Princeton children," she said. Healy also has served on the Community House Executive Board.
A Woodrow Wilson School major, Healy appreciates how pertinent academic work can be in public service, and vice versa. "Coursework in many disciplines, including sociology, economics, engineering and public policy, can be extremely useful for nonprofits," she said.
She has used her academic training to help lead the Princeton Justice Project Housing Equity Committee in addressing homelessness and other issues, and conducting research on housing policy for a local nonprofit as part of a Community-Based Learning Initiative project. She also serves as a member of the Pace Center Advisory Group. Healy has worked for two nonprofits on education reform and has tutored at an after-school program as well as worked at a camp for children with disabilities.
Healy is certain that community service enriches a Princeton education. "As amazing as your professors, your classmates and the resources at Princeton may be, community par-ticipation enhances all of that immeasurably by providing students with an often humbling real-life perspective on the challenges that many face and the potential role one can play in making a change," she said.
After she graduates, Healy is interested in teaching in an urban school or working for a nonprofit in the United States or abroad.
Combining his academic and civic interests, senior Robin Williams will spend next year traveling the country and creating a photo-book on the war on drugs. This endeavor is made possible by the ReachOut '56 Fellowship, which Williams was awarded this year and that provides $25,000 to undertake a yearlong public service project after graduation. Afterward, he plans to attend medical school and earn a master's degree in public health as well.
Williams, who is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Greensboro, N.C., said that the focus of the project will be describing "how we need to approach substance abuse as a health problem, not a criminal activity." He intends to "combine photographs and narratives with policy analysis to hopefully give a broad overview of how flawed our current approach is, and what can be done about it."
The project dovetails with other activities Williams has undertaken while a Princeton student. Currently he is writing a senior thesis on why it has been difficult for states to pass legislation needed to stop the spread of HIV. The project, which is associated with Princeton's Community-Based Learning Initiative, includes research Williams has done over the last three years while partnering with the national Drug Policy Alliance to learn about their syringe access campaign.
In the summer of his sophomore year, Williams worked in Ghana as an AIDS educator. On his return to campus, he joined the Student Global AIDS Campaign and the Princeton Justice Project (PJP), initiating as one of its first endeavors the NEXT (Needle Exchange Today) Campaign that focuses on the need for legislation to support syringe access in New Jersey. Since then, students involved with PJP have pursued several other projects targeting social justice issues.
Williams points to his experience interpreting for deaf-blind people while in high school as being the catalyst for his commitment to community service. "Those experiences helped me realize the importance of expanding one's daily routine," he said. "I think our role within and duty to the community is very important and often overlooked in our society."
Williams first got involved with community service at Princeton in the fall semester of his freshman year when he joined the Student Volunteers Council (SVC) board as its publications administrator and summer service internship chair. One of the highlights in his work with SVC was leading trips to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and to a farming community in Hudson, N.Y.
Other activities in which Williams has participated include serving as a Community Action leader and one of the program's coordinators. As a junior, he was the community service chair for his eating club, Terrace, and implemented a program working with the organization Homefront to cook and deliver meals to 40 homeless families temporarily living in motels along Route 1. Williams also was a moderator with Princeton's Sustained Dialogue program, which provides a forum to discuss race relations on campus.
Along with the community service programs directly associated with the University, Williams also is involved in service off campus. For three years he has been a "big brother" to Jimmy, a 12-year-old with whom he plays chess, attends sports events and watches movies. And for two years he translated and organized health education seminars for Spanish-speaking patients at the University Medical Center at Princeton.
Williams encourages students to take advantage of the many opportunities for community service while at Princeton. "Here at Princeton it is very easy to become isolated within a narrow frame of reference," he said. "I have found that all of my work in the community has added an invaluable perspective to my academic work."
Williams also is a photographer, a biweekly columnist with The Daily Princetonian and a member of the cycling team.
As a freshman during pre-orientation, Katherine Rodbro participated in Community Action, working with Habitat for Humanity building homes in Trenton. This year, she was a Community Action leader herself, volunteering with a new cohort of freshmen at Angel's Wings, a children's shelter in Trenton. She now visits the children three times a week, donating about 13 hours of her time.
A sophomore from Wadsworth, Ill., Rodbro initially found it difficult to work at the shelter, which houses children from birth to age 12 who come from situations of neglect and abuse. She said that one of the most emotionally demanding aspects of the work is saying goodbye to the children, who only stay at the shelter for up to 30 days before being placed in foster care.
Rodbro said that she and other volunteers "take care of the everyday needs" of the up to 12 children living in the shelter at one time, which includes feeding and playing with them and helping with their homework. She is working with other Princeton students to implement a six-week education program for the children that involves topics such as space, the human body and culture.
"I look forward to every hour I spend there," said Rodbro, who is connecting other Princeton students to Angel's Wings through her role as project coordinator for the site with the Student Volunteers Council.
This year, Rodbro was one of 17 students selected as a Pace Community Leader by the Pace Center for Community Service. This is her second year as a leader. Thirty-two students are participating in the program, in which they commit to 240 hours of community service during the academic year, averaging approximately 10 hours a week. Students also attend biweekly meetings to discuss their activities and ways to encourage student participation.
Rodbro, who started community service in earnest during high school, explained her motivation for involvement then and now: "I believe that since I have the ability to help others, I should try to create as many opportunities as possible for people who haven't had them," she said.
Rodbro's academic plans include majoring in psychology with a certificate in Spanish. She also plays trombone and is an officer with the Princeton University Band, and performs with the a cappella group Fire Hazards.
Learning life skills
When she started at Princeton, sophomore Caroline McCarthy quickly got involved in academics, sports and meeting people. Suddenly she realized that she had neglected her commitment to service, which had been important to her since she was a Girl Scout.
"At a prestigious school like Princeton where you're surrounded by so many brilliant people, it's easy to become caught up in writing the best term paper, finding the best summer internship and acing the chemistry final without even looking up at the world around you," McCarthy said.
Last semester, she found a new opportunity for service when, before an introductory biology course, representatives from New Jersey Community Water Watch visited class to recruit members. McCarthy immediately signed up.
Now the media coordinator for Water Watch's Princeton chapter, McCarthy helps to raise awareness about local environmental concerns. She contacts newspapers about stream cleanups and other events and writes for on-campus publications such as the Princeton Environmental Institute's newsletter. For McCarthy, who has lived in Princeton since she was 10, focusing on a local concern is particularly rewarding.
Emphasizing that public service teaches life skills, McCarthy said that her work with Water Watch has helped her "hone writing skills and learn about letters to the editor, advisories and press releases." It also is informing her academic choices; she plans to concentrate in the history of science track in the history department and pursue a certificate in environmental studies.
"When you're doing something with no monetary incentive, and you still love it and see how rewarding it is, I think that's something significant," said McCarthy.
Rounding out her busy days at Princeton, McCarthy is the editor-in-chief of Tiger magazine, serves on the editorial board for The Daily Princetonian and rows with the women's lightweight crew.