Staff Editorial: Creating a University culture of service

Steven Knapp has launched many new efforts since his induction as the University’s 16th president, with one of the most important being his desire to build a service culture at GW.

Graduating well-educated students should be every institution’s first priority, but students who do not understand their place in society’s larger context – and their ability to change it for the better – can hardly count as well-rounded.

This is why GW’s work to create a culture of service, from first lady Michelle Obama’s community service challenge in 2009 to the annual Freshman Day of Service, is perhaps one of the most important efforts the Knapp administration is undertaking.

It is time to take this cultural change seriously by institutionalizing service for all members of the community: staff, faculty, administrators and students.

Since the first Freshman Day of Service three years ago, GW has had time to study the successes and failures of creating a culture of service at the University, and with Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Reed assuming leadership over the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service in July, there should be a new vision created in which service is not something GW does, but what GW is.

The Obama service challenge was one of the first large public efforts geared toward volunteerism, and it is still one of GW’s best examples of how the community can gather to create a better District. More than 3,800 community members logged 106,945 hours over the academic year to secure the first lady as a Commencement speaker. Not only did Colonials benefit D.C. through service, but the challenge also created a sense of community for those volunteering.

That success has been hardly matched by the University since. The much lauded – and expensive – Freshman Day of Service is annually criticized for poor organization and a lack of actual service activities for student participation. The idea behind the day is laudable, but without continued service opportunities, it only offers a glimpse for freshmen. The day should be a welcoming to the service culture of GW for its newest students, but after the freshman class returns, GW must offer institutionalized ways for each Colonial to impact the world.

But a culture of service can only be created if the majority of the community is involved. There are thousands of students who study abroad, and just as many should be involved with service on a regular basis. New partnerships like the one announced last week with the Washington Literacy Center should become commonplace at the University.

All students should have the opportunity to take at least one service-oriented class during their time as a Colonial. This could be done by making course-offerings widespread in academic departments throughout the University.

If you give students a chance to volunteer for a cause they are passionate about and they’ll be hooked. Providing more service-oriented courses in specific fields and disciplines would allow students to explore volunteerism in their academic fields of interest. Students majoring in math or science could take courses that allow them to teach the fundamentals of their major to those who might not have access to a quality education.

But service does not only have to be a student activity.

Engaging professors and students in the community together will foster a personal, non-academic relationship.

Service could become part of the faculty tenure requirement. If volunteerism is ingrained in professors’ daily lives at GW, they will, in turn, emphasize it in the classroom.

Alternative breaks have soared in popularity in recent years, with hundreds of students signing up to volunteer across the country and globe. Other student organizations should take a hint and the University should push clubs to require all members to log a specific number of volunteer hours each semester or hold service events.

Administrators and staff – who are crucial to fostering an enduring culture of volunteerism – should receive special privileges, like better parking, for performing service regularly.

Critics might note that service should be something the community elects to do, rather than a requirement. But to establish service as a core facet of Colonial life, it must be institutionalized and incentivized.

Soon enough, service itself will be the incentive.

This post was updated on April 30, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly refereed to the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service as the Center for Civil Engagement and Public Service.

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