Redesigning a day of service

The University plans to modify Freshman Day of Service in response to a proposal from a senior who has volunteered since the day was created, calling for more productive work hours and campus projects.

Rachel Krausman outlined about a dozen improvements to help students get more out of the annual event in a 10-page proposal to administrators last month, including two extra hours of service and closer projects to cut travel costs – ideas GW’s community service office will spend the next year reviewing through focus groups.

“We can do so much in such a short amount of time,” Krausman said. “Even with a long list of recommendations and ideas, the adjustments and innovations we make are just tweaks to the core model, which I think will remain intact.”

Thousands of students sign up for Freshman Day of Service yearly, Krausman said, posing logistical challenges like busing students to dozens of different sites. The event racks up a high bill for buses and costs about $60,000 overall, Robert Chernak, formerly senior vice provost for Student and Academic Support Services, said last fall.

Amy Cohen, executive director for the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, said Krausman’s proposal coincides with talks within the department to “enhance the connections between days of service and the long-term service.” She said the office is also looking to increase the number of service days and projects throughout the year, add more faculty and staff volunteers and better structure training for student project leaders.

“We’re figuring out what we’re going to do next,” Cohen said. She added that the office would look to answer, “‘How do we make sure that this is the most valuable experience?’”

Service has topped University President Steven Knapp’s list of priorities since he was hired in 2007. Administrators hail Freshman Day of Service as the largest service day of any university nationwide, and the event drew national attention in 2009 when first lady Michelle Obama promised to speak at commencement if GW students served 100,000 hours.

This year’s event was the largest in its history, prompting GW to nearly double the number of service sites to 35 to accommodate 2,800 participants.

Freshman Joanne Zalatoris, who spent the day painting fences at a park near campus, said she thought the service day was a “good concept,” but added that she did not feel inspired to spend more time serving.

“We didn’t seem to be giving back to the community in a meaningful way,” Zalatoris said.

To increase the impact of students’ service, Krausman stressed more service projects that “require manpower,” like assembly lines of students putting together kits like care packages for troops overseas.

That idea would also help GW connect with organizations outside of the District, which Krausman called important because GW already sends students to dozens of sites across D.C.

She said developing projects for up to 200 students at a time is “one of the biggest challenges.”

Krausman also wants to track the event’s impact through surveys, looking at how many freshman participants also volunteer for Alternative Breaks, D.C. Reads, Jumpstart or Community Building Community after participating in the service day.

Senior Associate Provost and Dean of Students Peter Konwerski said service days like the Freshman Day of Service and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service are “good short-term introductions” to community engagement.

“While short-term service days don’t always have a dramatic and immediate impact to change a community or project, what they do is effectively provide students with a strong foundation for future service and further entice students to want to do more with that issue or community after the service,” said Konwerski, who was the founding director of the Office of Community Service.

Amanda Robbins, a freshman who helped paint a hallway in a Virginia middle school, said the work helped her feel connected to the community and to her hallmates who served with her. She said she was inspired by the school’s principal who talked about how excited the students would be when they walked in Monday morning.

She said the event inspired her to do more in the District because it helped her realize “there’s so much we can do in the immediate D.C. area to help people.”

Jorah Huntington contributed to this report.

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