By Tatyana Hopkins
First-year student Ajay Uppaluri waited excitedly for the George Washington University New Student Orientation all summer. High school in his hometown of Hyderabad, India, ended in March and he was eager to start classes. Once he arrived on campus for orientation, he was thrilled to find an assortment of programming for students and family.
However, most shocking to him was the university-wide community service day.
“I don't know if any other school does this, but it's good to start the year off like this,” Mr. Uppaluri said. “It's very refreshing and cool."
He and nearly 90 other first-year GW students helped administrators and teachers at the Wheatley Education Campus, a public school in Northeast D.C., prepare their classrooms for the first day of classes on Monday. GW students landscaped, painted walls, set up bulletin boards and added other finishing touches to hallways and classrooms to prepare for students’ arrival.
Their work to welcome Wheatley students back to school was part of GW’s 11th annual Convocation and Welcome Day of Service.
The group was among 2,390 students, faculty and staff stationed at 46 service sites spread across all eight wards of Washington, D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia.
This year, 18 of the service sites were D.C. public schools.
Shenora Plenty, Wheatley’s principal, said she and her four-person custodial staff were thankful for the extra hands.
“I really appreciate that GW is really aligned with the core value of serving the community,” Dr. Plenty said. “I think it’s great that first-year students, especially those who are not from D.C., have the opportunity to get out to different parts of the city and connect with schools.”
Organized by the GW Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, the annual service day tradition began after former First Lady Michelle Obama challenged the university to complete 100,000 volunteer hours in one academic year.
The university has exceeded that number every year since. Last, year the GW community completed 759,891 hours of service and awarded 902 President’s Volunteer Service Awards, a national recognition for service.
Welcome Day of Service is also a part of GW’s commemoration of 9/11 and observance of the national 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance, which seeks to emulate the spirit of service embraced by many Americans in the days following the attacks.
“Welcome Day of Service and Convocation invites our newest students into the vibrant communities of GW and D.C.,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of the Nashman Center. “Our service embodies GW's values and the spirit of active citizenship, intellectual curiosity and diversity and inclusion that are foundations of the GW experience.”
During this year’s service day, first-year students helped to feed veterans at Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va., supported sustainable urban agriculture at several sites including the GW GRoW Garden and Eco City Farms in Maryland and participated in trash clean-up projects. They also aided organizations that support families living in poverty and trained for disaster and emergency response with GW EMeRG and the National Academy of Sciences’ LabX, among other things.
Before heading to their service sites, the class of 2023 attended Convocation, the university’s official welcome for first-year students, where they heard words of encouragement from GW President Thomas LeBlanc, Provost Forrest Maltzman and Swetha Ramesh, this year’s student speaker.
Dr. LeBlanc encouraged students to prioritize service and take advantage of GW courses, research projects and student organizations that serve others.
"Find time for these activities," he said. "Performing acts of service in our D.C. community is an important part of how we must go beyond ourselves and work to transform the world. Today should be just a start of many opportunities for you to serve the community."
Dr. LeBlanc and his wife, Anne, joined student volunteers at several sites, including Payne Elementary School in Southeast D.C. and a neighborhood beautification project with the Foggy Bottom Association, where they collected trash and pulled weeds alongside students at a small park near GW Hospital.
Marina Streznewski, president of the Foggy Bottom Association, said until recently, an 89-year-old resident maintained the park, which is owned by the National Park Service. But the task, which he had performed for over 15 years, had grown to be too difficult for him to keep up.
She thanked the group for their help.
“This is your home as much as it is ours, and we hope that you will think of it as your home by helping us take care of things,” Ms. Streznewski said to the group.
Annik Brar, a first-year student from Los Angeles who served with the Foggy Bottom Association, said Welcome Day of Service gave her the opportunity to get acquainted with her new neighborhood, which she had only joined four days before, and make new friends.
“It’s a great chance to meet new people and meet new friends,” Ms. Brar said. “We also get to see professors and faculty and get to know where we’re going to be for the next four years.”
Ms. Brar bonded with fellow first-year student Maliha Shariff while they both tried to avoid bugs as they pulled weeks alongside a curb on New Hampshire Avenue NW.
Ms. Shariff said it felt good to serve the community in a meaningful way.
“I feel like I’m already contributing,” she said. “I’m giving my part already, and that is what I expected from college.”
On campus in the Marvin Center, first-year student Emma Westcott packed and lifted boxes alongside other students in the Store, District House’s student-run food pantry, in an effort to clean and reorganize its shelves.
Ms. Westcott, who ran her high school’s recycling program and was a member of a youth philanthropy board that wrote grants for nonprofits in her hometown, said she was impressed with the large scale of Welcome Day of Service and was excited to see the university prioritize community service.
“I didn't expect anything like this to happen,” she said. “I'm really glad that they’re showing us early ways to get involved.”