Ignoring Thunderstorms, GW Community Buckles Down to Serve

More than 2,100 students, faculty and staff gather for Freshman Day of Service.

Freshman Day of Service highlight video
Watch highlights from Freshman Day of Service 2015.
September 14, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

On Saturday afternoon Alex Clark, a freshman at the George Washington University, was busy organizing cabinets and tidying classrooms. She was one of a group of  about 45 GW volunteers helping clean and beautify the Edward C. Mazique Center as part of the school’s annual Freshman Day of Service.

Her coworkers included fellow students like Josh Okoro, Mazique teachers like Nikko Randolph and George Washington University President Steven Knapp.  

Ms. Clark was laughing. “I can’t believe this,” she groaned, covering her face with her hands. “We just made President Knapp clean a trash can.”

It was the seventh annual Day of Service for the university, 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 school consistently has surpassed Mrs. Obama’s benchmark, last year recording 655,192 hours. The day also is part of the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance.

“We use this conjunction of our Convocation and Day of Service to emphasize the importance of citizen leadership and the legacy of our university,” Dr. Knapp said before the day's activities kicked off.

Amy Cohen, executive director of the Nashman Center, said, “Service is an opportunity for students to learn more about themselves, but also to learn more about the community they’re a part of. We strongly believe at GW that our students develop both academic and citizenship skills while they’re here, so service is one way they can join their academics with citizenship and their personal values with citizenship.”

Despite threatening weather, over 2,100 student, staff and faculty volunteers were upbeat as they gathered for Convocation at the Charles E. Smith Center. They were welcomed by remarks from Dr. Knapp, Provost Steven Lerman and Day of Service student coordinator Jonah Lewis, among others.

“Part of what draws students to this university is the opportunity to have a front-row seat in the theater of history,” Dr. Knapp told members of the class of 2019. “You will find your classmates to be among the most focused and engaged members of your generation.”

This year’s event was a landmark for GW, marking the renaming of the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service  after professor emerita Honey Nashman, who also addressed the gathered volunteers. Her gift to the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service commemorates what she called “43 glorious and rewarding years” as a GW faculty member. Members of Dr. Nashman’s family, many of whom also attended GW, were in the audience.

“Be well, be playful and do good,” Dr. Nashman exhorted the crowd. She earned a standing ovation.

As upbeat tracks by the likes of Taylor Swift played, leaders waving signs for their various projects welcomed and directed the crowds of freshmen.

Sophomore Zoe Grimaldi, a site leader at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, said she looked forward to hearing stories from retirees who served in the military.

“Our veterans’ community at GW is really large and really prominent,” she said. “I think it’s really important to give back to that community, and this is a great way to do that.”

Annie Syed, a freshman in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, was ready to create preschool materials for Jumpstart DC  alongside her classmates Antoinette Jones and Aine McGhee Marley.

“I’m just really happy that GW does this, because it’s a great chance for us to bond with each other,” Ms. Syed said.

Ms. McGhee Marley gazed around the crowded Smith Center. “There are so many of us,” she said.

While torrential rain canceled some outdoor service projects, most continued unhindered, with a project in every ward of Washington, D.C. Students helped prepare meals at The Campus Kitchens Project, hauled furniture at A Wider Circle  in Silver Spring, Md., and helped patch walls and paint at Shelter House in Falls Church, Va., where they were joined by Virginia State Rep. Mark Keam (D).

“It was a wonderful day of service,” Ms. Cohen said. “The rain was no impediment to students, who bonded with one another and worked alongside community members on service projects inside and out, and our partners told us that Freshman Day of Service helped them make great progress.”

At Washington Global Public Charter School—a D.C. public charter school founded and run by two GW alumni—GW volunteers worked alongside middle school students to decorate the school’s bulletin boards with inspirational quotations chosen by the students themselves. Alongside words from Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandela, one student suggested a favorite from eccentric fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld: “What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that is gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”

“I love photography,” the student said, smiling shyly.

Site leader Louis Fisher, a sophomore in CCAS, said he appreciates both the service and social sides of the tradition.

“When I was a freshman, I did the Day of Service partly to get to know people on my floor,” he said, adding that he still ranks the people he got to know that day among his best friends. “It’s a great way to help [students] create a sense of community—with D.C. and also with each other.”