Undergraduate provides forum for volunteers to take the next step in civic engagement.
By James Irwin
Alexandria Thompson has been doing volunteer work most of her life—as a high school student she participated in a community service trip to the Navajo Nation—but it was an Alternative Breaks trip she took during her freshman year at the George Washington University that introduced her to a major factor of social and economic injustice.
She and a group of GW volunteers traveled to Los Angeles in 2012 to work with sixth graders in underserved schools. They found the students, most of them 11 or 12 years old, were still learning basic addition and subtraction.
“For me that was an introduction of how important education was, and the ties education has to injustice,” said Ms. Thompson, now a Columbian College of Arts and Sciences junior. “That was the point when I realized how much I wanted to dedicate myself to education reform.”
She has since volunteered in many capacities, serving as a team leader for the AmeriCorps’ Jumpstart program, working with Community Building Community and Justice for Juniors, and returning to Los Angeles as an Alternative Breaks group leader. On Monday, Ms. Thompson, the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service and Teach for America hosted an event at the Marvin Center for students to explore opportunities for community service with major organizations, gathering representatives from 13 service-oriented groups for roundtable discussions and a networking session.
The groups—including Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the Center for Education Reform, DC Reads, LIFT and Jumpstart—all have ties to education, but offer service opportunities in different ways, ranging from internships and semester-long volunteer positions to multiyear immersion trips overseas.
“I think everyone should do some type of service, but the path they take should fit them, their interests, passions and abilities,” Ms. Thompson said. “By seeing so many different organizations you can really see which one fits best.”
GW amassed more than 254,000 volunteer hours in 2012-13 through philanthropic affiliations, day-of-service events, experiential learning trips and other projects. The university routinely is listed among national leaders in annual Peace Corps rankings.
The right volunteer in the right opportunity is mutually beneficial, said Amy Cohen, executive director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service.
“Is service primarily about the development of a student or about the community’s development? We’re an educational institution, so it may be about the student, but we’re not doing our job as an educational institution if our volunteers are not going out and doing the absolute best work they can for the community,” Ms. Cohen said. “If we are not going out and doing the most effective service we can then we are not teaching. It’s a reciprocal relationship.”
Most of the students in Monday’s crowd of about 40 were seasoned volunteers, having worked through the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service or with one of the organizations present. Service-learning is a part of the university culture. GW amassed more than 254,000 volunteer hours in 2012-13 through philanthropic affiliations, day-of-service events, experiential learning trips and other projects. The university routinely is listed among national leaders in annual Peace Corps rankings.
“We have amazing resources here and driven students,” said Columbian College junior Sahara Lake, a former intern at the Center for Education Reform and an Alternative Breaks volunteer. “Students here are civically minded, people are pretty politically active, we’re located in the heart of D.C. and we have great support from the university.”
That support, Ms. Thompson said, includes enhanced volunteer opportunities for those who wish to extend their service or modify existing programs. Last year, in preparation for her return to Los Angeles, Ms. Thompson proposed the Alternative Breaks group work with a specific youth population most susceptible to the influence of MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. Her idea was accepted and implemented.
“I don’t think every university would have supported me with that,” Ms. Thompson said. “That support is a prime example of how GW is willing to take a stand for community service and place people into projects that might make other universities uneasy. GW does a really good job in supporting its students.”