By Ruth Steinhardt
Chatting energetically as they knelt in the dirt, Bridget Carl and her friends didn’t look like they’d been doing manual labor in the September sun for hours—but the piles of earth all around them told their own story.
“It’s been oddly relaxing, actually,” Ms. Carl said with a smile, turning over another spadeful of dirt in the FoodPrints vegetable garden outside the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens.
“This kind of labor is meaningful because we just provide manpower,” said Alyssa Martindale, like Ms. Carl a freshman at the George Washington University. “It’s not about us, it really serves the community.”
Ms. Carl and Ms. Martindale were among more than 2200 GW students participating in the school’s traditional Freshman Day of Service Saturday. Alongside about 50 faculty and staff volunteers, they spread out to 40 sites in Maryland, Virginia and all eight wards of Washington, D.C., to clean classrooms, tend gardens, paint murals and connect with the community in which they now live.
It was the university’s ninth annual Freshman Day of Service, a tradition organized by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service since 2009, when First Lady Michelle Obama challenged GW to complete 100,000 hours of community service. The university has consistently exceeded Mrs. Obama’s goal, last year recording more than 711,000 service hours.
Freshman Day of Service also is part of GW’s commemoration of 9/11 Day and the Tomorrow Together campaign.
Emily Thomson, a sophomore at the Elliott School of International Affairs, volunteered this year as a site leader at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington. Her own Freshman Day of Service experience working with the Friends of Noyes Park was a crucial introduction to the richness of the Washington, D.C., community outside Foggy Bottom, she said.
“It changed my whole outlook,” Ms. Thomson said. “I was pretty sure I wanted to do service in college, but after going to Friends of Noyes Park and meeting all the families and talking to them about D.C., about their neighborhood, about their lives—it really connected me with service. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh I’m going to do something for a couple of hours.’ You’re meeting people and becoming part of a community, and that’s the most important part of service.”
At Convocation Saturday morning—the school’s official welcome to the incoming class of 2021, held in the Charles E. Smith Center—George Washington President Thomas LeBlanc urged new freshmen to seek out extra opportunities to learn and serve, and to take advantage of the resources available to them as GW students.
To a laughing chorus of “awws,” he added that the class of 2021 would “always have a special place in [his] heart” as his presidency’s first class of GW freshmen.
“Your journey is my journey,” he said.
To that end, Dr. LeBlanc joined volunteers at several sites over the course of the day, pruning sweet potato plants at Francis-Stevens and hauling textbooks at McKinley.
“Freshman Day of Service is always a wonderful gathering among students and an introduction to the community and our neighbors,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of the Nashman Center. “This year, the day takes on an even greater meaning and urgency. We gather together not only to serve with D.C. and our surrounding community, but also to begin to build the connections and understanding that will help us address recent natural disasters, increasing civic instability and ongoing racism and economic disparities.”
Many students volunteering on Saturday had been personally affected by the seemingly endless series of natural disasters that have recently affected the U.S. Francis-Stevens site leader Mia Prado, a Florida native, said her family was preparing to ride out Hurricane Irma.
“We’re used to hurricanes in Florida,” she said, grimacing. “But I’m glad I’m here.”
At Francis-Stevens alone, Ms. Prado, Ms. Carl, Ms. Martindale and their fellow volunteers left behind a new irrigation ditch, pruned vegetable beds, painted benches and a newly mulched garden that would still be accessible in the rain. (And a few safe, hardworking worms: “Hello, friend,” Ms. Prado said, rescuing one from the sharp edges of the volunteers’ shovels.)
Current GW students weren’t the only ones at work. Alumna Megan Hanley, B.A. ’06, is now assistant principal at School Without Walls. For her, as for Ms. Thomson, service is an essential way to get students in touch with the community outside the college “bubble.”
“There is a beautiful history and a rich community in D.C.,” she said. “Living here, you have so much at your fingertips—not just prestigious internships or working close to the government, although that’s cool, too, but the opportunity to see and connect with this incredible, thriving city.”