Four years ago, Virginia Tech's Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships began developing a living-learning community that embodies the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
In the fall of 2009, the center launched the Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences (SERVE) living-learning community. Since then, SERVE has grown in popularity and recognition for its programming and mission to foster personal growth and civic responsibility.
The community began as a collaborative effort primarily between the center and the Department of Housing and Residence Life and has grown to include the Residential Leadership Community from Agricultural and Extension Education and the ePortfolio Initiative.
Today, SERVE acts as a signature program of the center. Under the direction of Jake Grohs, Virginia Tech alumnus and assistant director for student engagement, the community continues to expand its programming and grow in size.
SERVE seeks to engage students with questions of how individuals can contribute to the world in ways that are both fulfilling and aligned with personal passions, knowledge, and skills. SERVE creates a safe environment where members can collectively explore, construct, and refine their understanding of community, service, and social change.
In the 2011-12 acacdemic year, more than 40 students of different ages and majors were part of the community.
First-year students live in Pritchard Hall and enroll in SERVE-specific sections of the Exploring Citizen Leadership course series that focuses on community development, leadership, and social change theory. Older students, who are mostly alumni of the first-year program, lead reflections in both the classroom and the residence hall and facilitate service projects in the local community and beyond.
Analise Adams, of Blacksburg, Va., a junior majoring in psychology and human development, has been involved with SERVE since her freshman year and during the fall 2011 semester coordinated and led service immersion trips. “Ever since I was a first-year student, I had the opportunity to find a sense of ownership in the program,” she said. “I’ve been able to see how the program has developed due to student participation, and being able to see my contributions from year to year has been really rewarding.”
From their first day, students are challenged to identify personal passions and motivations for serving, to explore their passions in the context of peers in local and global communities, and to put their motivations into practice. Both classroom and extracurricular community engagement experiences serve as common ground for reflections, which are then shared via ePortfolios.
Student-led service experiences act as the bedrock of the program. Community members pursue both individual volunteerism with specific organizations in the New River Valley and group service-immersion experiences that typically last between one and seven days. Group volunteerism provides opportunity explore critical social issues. The individual component enables the student to develop a relationship with a community partner that can continue to build throughout his or her undergraduate career.
The newest aspect of the volunteer experience arrived in fall with entirely student-led service immersion experiences. Three weekend trips forged new relationships with nonprofit partners while addressing issues of homelessness in Roanoke, Va.; disaster relief in Pulaski, Va.; and urban poverty in Charlotte, N.C.
“The service immersion experiences are particularly powerful because they not only serve as a direct way for students to learn and serve in other environments, but because they create the space for deeply transformative experiences in community,” Grohs said.
In spring 2012, students will repeat the trips to these same communities, and SERVE will host its first international trip when 12 students travel to Hato Mayor, Dominican Republic, to address public health issues in partnership with the Community Service Alliance.
Grohs coordinated several service immersion trips as an undergraduate and graduate student at Virginia Tech. The opportunity to support his students’ work in facilitating similar experiences has been very exciting. “I know that I still point to late-night conversations with friends on a crowded porch in Hato Mayor as some of the most formative in shaping who I am today. I hope the same holds true for the SERVE students on their many travels together, both locally and abroad, short and long.”
The Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships was established in 2008 with the core belief that student-community interaction is essential to transforming students into global citizens and establishing competencies related to service; leadership; multiculturalism and internationalism; and personal, moral, and ethical development.
The center focuses on the critical connection between our land-grant university and the many communities it serves, believing that if engagement is to be effective, it must be reciprocal. In so doing, the center enriches and strengthens the university’s discovery and learning missions.
Each student in SERVE creates an ePortfolio to follow his or her journey throughout the fall and spring semesters in the living-learning community.
In addition to reporting service-learning hours, the SERVE program focuses on students returning to leadership, partnership development, and scholarship as additional metrics for success. Among its accomplishments are the following:
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