Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2008

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Building for the Future
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Building Future Activists
Clockwise from top left: Jesse Meadow ´08, Sandro Aguilar ´08, Stephanie Banim ´10, Harrison Wood ´10

Four Faces of Student Volunteerism Today

by Susan Kietzman ´82


Students at Connecticut College today have a much different view of volunteering than their predecessors. It is mandated in some of their coursework, but it is also rooted in their psyche. No longer a luxury for the purely altruistic, volunteering is now an activity that enriches learning. As such, student volunteers shrug off their generation´s attachment to entitlement and embrace their responsibility to better the world. Change is their mission: one committee meeting, one mentoring session, one hour at a time.

Jesse Meadow ´08 volunteers “because my life wouldn´t be complete if I didn´t. It is so important to stand up for the basic human rights that everyone deserves, especially for people who don´t have a voice. One person can make a difference if he or she has passion and conviction.”

Meadow is one of more than 600 students who volunteer every year through the College´s Office of Volunteers for Community Service (OVCS) and the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, endowed by Jerry and Carolyn Holleran ´60, which prepares students for lives of civic engagement and leadership. Students squeeze in hours before and after classes, even on the weekends. However, they also volunteer in the classroom.

“For a human development class, I volunteered at the local women´s shelter,” says Meadow. “For my environmental psychology class, we visited a nearby prison to see the conditions and how the building was set up and used.”

During the past 10 years, Connecticut College has increased the number of “community-learning or service-learning courses,” according to Tracee Reiser, associate dean for community learning, director of OVCS, and associate director of the Holleran Center. More than 20 such courses may be offered during an academic year, with students required to work at community-based organizations. Their experiences contribute to the learning outcomes of the course, just like readings, research, papers and other assignments.

Meadow wasn´t fulfilling a course requirement last year when she started LINCC — Linking New London and Connecticut College Communities, a committee that acts as a liaison between the two entities. Because involvement often requires transportation, the committee evaluated options for students to get into downtown New London, focusing on van services and walking/biking paths between the campus and downtown.

“New London is an up-and-coming city,” says Meadow. “There is still a lot of room for improvement, but there are so many different kinds of people and so many different things to do. The problem is getting students downtown to enjoy it.”

In addition to providing students with better transportation, LINCC organized and promoted events to bring the communities together. Working with New London´s Downtown Development office, where Meadow served as an intern in the spring, the committee sponsored a variety show at New London´s Garde Arts Center to benefit the city´s Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, as well as a student photography contest, Through a Camel´s Eye, at the Hygienic Art gallery on Bank Street. In conjunction with the College´s Student Activities Council, LINCC hosted Friday Night Live events, bussing students downtown to see local bands.

“Many students don´t take advantage of what we have to offer,” says Joe Celli, New London´s Downtown Development coordinator. “But Jesse got it; she got it immediately. She was the catalyst for so much of the connection this past year between the College and the city. We were very lucky to have her.”

Meadow grew up in Princeton, N.J., with parents who advocated volunteering. In high school, she worked with the Special Olympics, Big Brother/Big Sister programs and STAND (Students Take Action Now: Darfur). A scholar in the Holleran Center´s Certificate Program in Community Action, she graduated with the academic center´s certificate along with a bachelor´s degree in psychology in May.

Harrison Wood ´10, of Villanova, Pa., is also a Holleran scholar. He has walked for the homeless, helped organize a Teen Life Conference, and mentored 13- to 15-year-old boys at New London´s Drop-In Learning Center. Established in 1970, the center is an informal meeting place for inner-city youth who want to improve their grades and make positive life choices. Wood worked with the teens and a facilitator twice a week, going over homework and discussing issues like sex, drug use and the benefits of working hard in school.

“During his visits, he shared a lot of his personal experience and life´s struggles with the kids,” Learning Center Executive Director Reona Dyess-Dunham says. “I was impressed by his courage to do that. He´s very open; he´s very trusting. He showed the kids that it´s possible to overcome problems by making good choices.”

Next spring Wood, a history major, is going to China to study its historical relationship with the United States and its emergence as a superpower, as well as the potential social problems perpetuated by its new economic status.

“Not everyone is meant to change the world,” he says. “But I can and need to do my part, just like the people who stepped in and helped me.”

Stephanie Banim ´10 came to Connecticut College from Brooklyn, N.Y., with years of volunteering experience. Banim graduated from the Loyola School, a Jesuit high school in Manhattan that emphasizes the importance of Christian service along with education. Throughout her years there she did everything from visiting people in nursing homes to working in a soup kitchen.

“I was very interested in continuing community service when I came here,” she says.

As a freshman Banim went to the OVCS Community Fair, held early each fall to introduce students to the College´s more than 50 community partners. Soon she was tutoring local second-graders twice a week and learning about America Reads, a national grassroots literacy campaign. Now she is the College´s America Reads student coordinator, sending fellow students into New London´s third-grade classrooms.

This year, the human development major worked at Alliance for Living (AFL), a service and support agency dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in New London County affected by HIV/AIDS. Once or twice a week Banim boarded an OVCS van to the Broad Street facility, where she prepared and served meals, filled grocery orders from its food pantry and assisted members in need of clothing.

“Tutoring and AFL were placements for two human development classes,” she says. “While both have been educational, working at AFL has really opened my eyes. AIDS and HIV carry stigmas in the minds of many people. When I was there, sometimes people just wanted to talk. We prepared and served meals, but it was often just as important for me to sit down with someone and listen.”

She adds, “Volunteering continues to give me incredible experiences that will shape my life, now and in the future.”

Sandro Aguilar ´08, a native of Houston, is the first in his family to attend college. At Commencement in May, when Aguilar received his degree in psychology-based human relations, he was honored with the Anna Lord Strauss Medal, presented to the senior who has done outstanding work in public or community service, including service to the College.

During his senior year, Aguilar mentored middle school students and taught them life skills. The students trusted him, he says, because he faced similar family, community and education issues growing up. He knew their temptations and could relate to their problems.
“He´s a very good listener. He showed a lot of patience and integrity. And he treated the kids respectfully,” says Lisa Miko, a Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School social worker who has worked in New London public schools for 31 years. “Most important, he came across as real to them. They knew he was sincere, which is why they loved being with him.”

As a junior, Aguilar started an after-school mentoring program in collaboration with the Drop-In Learning Center, working with seventh- and eighth-graders three days at week. Aguilar created the curriculum he taught, which included including reading, writing and critical thinking, and helped the boys organize fundraisers for local field trips.

“It´s important for these kids to see that people care about them,” says Aguilar. “They need to know that no matter who you are, if you are given the right opportunity, you can succeed.”

Aguilar patterned his program after one started by his eighth-grade teacher, a Teach For America participant. The program, Clase Sin Paredes (Class Without Walls), changed his outlook on life and helped him get accepted at a college preparatory school, YES (Youth Engaged in Service). Its charter mandates that students must be accepted to a four-year college to receive their high school diploma.
Aguilar is now back in Texas, training for the Teach for America program. In the fall, he will return to YES to teach.

Associate Dean Reiser knows the importance of development and education in the modern world of volunteering. In fact, she doesn´t favor the V word. Instead, she refers to volunteer activities as teaching and learning opportunities. She insists her students view volunteerism as a partnership.

“Community learning is more informed than volunteering. Students are studying concepts and seeing them work in the world. They are also bringing what´s happening in the world back into the classroom,” she says.

“This is something these students will do their whole lives, not just a semester or two. Long-term commitment and involvement within communities are what make democracy survive. You cannot have democracy without engaged citizenry.”


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