Surprised (Happily) by College's Service Culture

“How do you figure out which colleges will be best for your child?” a mother in the audience asked me recently.

“A good place to start is by asking your child to think about times in his life when he felt confident, energized, connected, or felt he was making a valuable contribution,” I replied. Four years ago, when my daughter Lauren was doing this exercise, she realized that a number of her best moments came during community service projects.

So I took notice last week when the college she chose, Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), won a 2009 presidential award for community service.

“Did you know OWU was so strong in community service when you picked it?” I asked Lauren, now a junior.

“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t you remember?’’ My memory’s not what it was… “That was one of the questions I always asked colleges because I loved the Honduras work [done in high school] so much,” Lauren explained (patiently). I guess I was the only one surprised by how that played out four years later.

How do you make a culture come alive-- even to a high schooler?

This made me curious: how does a college foster a service culture that is noticeable even to a high school student? I asked OWU’s Susan Pasters, Director of Community Service Learning, and Rock Jones, President.

CD: Why do you think so many OWU students volunteer so many hours in community service?
SP: Each student’s motivation is uniquely individual, but OWU attracts students who are predisposed toward participating in community service. Many of our students want to be engaged in service-learning activities outside the classroom. Others find that community service is a good way to make friends and feel good about themselves.
RJ: Ohio Wesleyan has a long heritage of combining rigorous classroom work with real-world experiences, including volunteer service. There is a particularly strong culture of service on the campus that is embraced by virtually everyone at OWU.

CD: Many colleges have community service. When you arrived at OWU, did you expect that this was an area where the school would stand apart?

SP: I arrived in July 1989 to establish a community service office. I knew that OWU had a long history of producing a large percentage of graduates who entered a life of service…[but] in 1989, I had no idea that Ohio Wesleyan would end up being an exemplary school for service and service-learning.
RJ: I learned in the interview process of the longstanding commitment to service at Ohio Wesleyan, dating from the early 20th century when OWU sent large numbers of graduates to serve as Methodist missionaries to the late 20th century when OWU was recognized for being one of the universities to send the largest number of graduates to service in the Peace Corps. Service is in the genetic code of OWU.

CD: How do you encourage students to get involved?
RJ: We start talking about it during the admission process, we talk more during Orientation, and we host a Volunteer Fair during the first week of classes.

SP: We advertise through every means possible, but there is also a great word-of-mouth network where students recruit their friends to get involved because they are having such great experiences.

Finding Meaning

CD: Finding meaning isn’t always easy. Does community service add meaning for OWU students?
RJ: Yes – it happens every day. Many students share with me stories of the deep meaning they have found through volunteer service. I believe that a part of our educational mission is to help students understand the connection between their academic work and their most cherished values that provide the source of their understanding of life purpose.

CD: What else does participation in community service do for a student?
SP: In my opinion, students who engage in service have a better idea of what they want to do in life, have more hands-on experience to put on their resumes, and are apt to be more compassionate toward people different from themselves.
RJ: When I interview graduating seniors, many of them cite community service as a source of important growth and personal transformation during their years at OWU.

Community service is one of the ways to bring out gifts that don’t show up in the classroom and to bring meaning to life.  It's also often a place where kids who don't do well academically can feel they make a valuable contribution.  For these reasons and the inherent gift of helping someone else, I recommend encouraging service in your child even if his school doesn't (and you may be surprised!).

I originally wrote this for Positive Psychology News Daily and the original article is here.

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