Georgia Southern students are volunteering all across Statesboro and Bulloch County, but not in the traditional ways students generally volunteer. Certainly students provide all manner of traditional volunteer labor – you can see them unloading and loading foodstuffs at the Food Bank, helping vendors set up and take down at the Farmers Market, and carrying furniture in and out of the Habitat ReStore. But what may not be as obvious are the many and varied leadership roles Georgia Southern undergraduates tackle within our public and non-profit agencies.
The Office of Student Leadership & Civic Engagement, guided by Director Dr. Todd Deal, specifically cultivates leadership skills by placing students in a variety of challenging, pre-professional service environments and walking alongside them to help them recognize and work through the leadership challenges that arise. Students lead positive change by taking ownership of specific projects (such as special events and public relations campaigns), by taking responsibility for the volunteer management at an organization, by designing and leading a service assignment for an entire classroom of their peers, or by committing to leading weekly educational service trips for students who do not have their own transportation.
“The leadership skills students develop while managing these responsibilities will serve them throughout their professional lives,” says Deal. “Often our students are faced with conflicting needs and are called on to maximize agency outcomes using volunteer labor and very limited budgets, all in the limited amount of personal time they have available. These tensions introduce our students to the frustrations of solving practical, real-world challenges with limited resources.”
“We begin developing the leadership capacity of our students even before they begin their freshmen courses,” says Jodi Kennedy, Associate Director of the Office of Student Leadership & Civic Engagement. Kennedy coordinates the summer Building Undergraduate Involvement and Leadership Development (BUILD) program, which welcomes 120 incoming freshmen to campus at the end of July each year. BUILD students spend 5 days doing service throughout our community and participate in leadership and team building activities in the evenings.
“The BUILD program is run by our office and a group of upperclassmen, who act as small group leaders, guiding the new freshmen through all types of service and educational activities,” says Kennedy. “While introducing their small groups to opportunities for leadership and service, the upperclassmen are themselves gaining tremendous leadership skills as they model leadership based on empowering others, which is the foundation of our entire program.”
“We see this type of specialized, professional leadership development in service-learning courses across campus,” says Wendy Denton, Assistant Director of Service-Learning. “An entry-level course comprised of younger students, with little shared experience, may not be able to tackle a complex service-learning assignment. But once they get into the upper levels of their major, juniors and seniors are able to use the specialized skills they have developed to tackle difficult problems. Students and student teams provide high-order research, design work, management solutions, and personal client interactions that our Community Partner organizations could not afford to hire. In these ways, our service-learning courses contribute terrific energy and expertise within our community – while training our students to work with real-world limitations.”
Of course, most of the leadership and service does not take place as a classroom assignment. The majority of the volunteer work is done by students who simply want to contribute. “Students walk in to our office every day, looking for a way to give back to this community,” says Danyel Addes, Coordinator of Civic Engagement. “Most Georgia Southern students arrive in Statesboro with little knowledge of which agencies welcome student volunteers, or how they might be able to help. Fortunately, there is a large cohort of student leaders who have already walked down that path and are enthusiastic about recruiting new students to step into leadership roles within the agencies they have come to love.”
To this end, the office manages a number of programs that help students define their pre-professional leadership opportunities. Students can become a Volunteer In Action (VIA), committing to an unpaid job description designed to take responsibility for some meaningful project with an area organization. Or they can lead a weekly trip addressing an issue about which they have expertise and passion.
The office also hires eleven students each year and embeds them in area organizations to work as volunteer coordinators for those organizations. “We found that managing the large number of students wanting to volunteer at organizations like the Statesboro Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Club had actually become a burden to those organizations. The Community Liaison program was developed to protect our Community Partners from all the student energy coming their way!” laughs Addes. “Community Liaisons are hired from the ranks of exceptional underclassmen volunteers and weekly trip leaders, so we have faith in their commitment, and know they fully understand the volunteer experience from a student’s perspective.”
“The process comes to fruition when our students graduate, and their personal stories, résumés, and letters of recommendation all attest to a college career filled with initiative, academic achievement, promotions to higher levels of responsibility, and passion. Those are the students who have no trouble moving on to graduate school or getting hired”, says Deal. “And that’s our goal for each and every student.”