More than 2,000 students and community members headed into the D.C.-area Saturday for the annual Freshman Day of Service, which focused on ecological sustainability and the importance of environmentally responsible behavior this year.
Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin kicked off the event in the Smith Center, challenging students to help save the planet by working on parts of the environment already in peril in order to prevent them from getting worse.
“The need to re-evaluate how we use our natural resources [is imperative],” Corwin said. “In fact, our behavior could devastate life itself.”
Corwin added that events like the Freshman Day of Service show a growing trend of young people trying to offset the harm that has been done to the world’s ecosystem.
“This event is showing all of us the power of one,” Corwin said in an interview with The Hatchet.
Throughout the day, students were assigned to one of 14 community service sites across the District, Maryland and Virginia, where they picked up garbage at national parks, cleansed rivers of invasive plant species and cleaned local recreation areas.
A group of more than 100 lucky students were assigned to work alongside first lady Michelle Obama at the Vinson Hall Retirement Community center, painting and cleaning the building, as well as raking leaves and other activities.
Obama arrived at the event around 1 p.m. after attending a 9/11 memorial service with former first lady Laura Bush for the victims of Flight 93, which was hijacked and crashed in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama greeted volunteers, took photos and played an integral part in helping to re-paint the center’s loading-dock walls white and its pipes orange.
Though Obama made no formal remarks at the event, she took time to speak with a group of people who live at the retirement center, mostly veterans of the U.S. military.
While the majority of volunteers at the community center were GW freshmen, members of the GW Veterans, GW’s Sigma Chi fraternity and the Service Nation program were in attendance to help clean up and improve the retirement center.
Working alongside the first lady was senior and Student Association President Jason Lifton and president of Sigma Chi Ashish Kumbhat. Lifton is also a member of Sigma Chi.
Kumbhat helped Obama paint and said he was impressed with Obama’s skills.
“She was a great painter and was genuine about it. She was happy about GWU students doing community service a year after this day of service had started,” Kumbhat said, referring to last year’s Freshman Day of Service.
“This kind of event will empower us to come out again and again,” Kumbhat added.
Freshman Kristin Moreno said it was exciting to have Obama at the event.
“It was really good to see that she likes to be involved in the community and having her present at the event made it feel like we were making a difference, and that she really cared a lot about the cause of service and giving back,” Moreno said. “It was a good way to honor the people that aren’t with us here anymore because of 9/11.”
Freshman Kate Smith said she thought serving would be a good way to meet other people in the freshman class and that it was also important to give back to the community.
“We’re very lucky to go to GW and have so many opportunities presented to us,” Smith said. “It’s important to give back as much as we’re getting.”
Exactly one year prior at the Freshman Day of Service in 2009, Obama challenged the University community to complete 100,000 hours of community service. If the GW community completed the challenge, Obama said she would deliver the keynote Commencement address on the National Mall.
At this year’s Freshman Day of Service, University President Steven Knapp congratulated the GW community for completing and far surpassing Obama’s challenge last year.
“As a nation, we can do more, and our students are leading the way,” Knapp said.
Knapp also acknowledged that the University would continue its effort to promote green and eco-conscious lifestyles on campus, one of Knapp’s main priorities he has undertaken since beginning his tenure as the University’s top administrator in 2007.
“Our school has tremendous passion for sustainability in all its dimensions,” Knapp said. “It is going to become a very important part of our University tradition.”
Freshman Nicole Mortimer, who volunteered at Washington Parks and People, said her efforts and those of her fellow classmates did not go unnoticed by residents of the community.
“We were even asked if we were coming back tomorrow to keep helping out,” she said.
Courtney Wade, another freshman participant, said she was honored to be taking part in community service on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She also noted the importance of doing something beneficial for our nation as a whole, whether it be serving veterans or cleaning parks.
“[Sept. 11] took something away from us, and now we’re giving something back,” Wade said. u