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American Today

In the Community

Learning Goes Both Ways During Freshmen Service Experience

By Mike  Unger

The only thing sparkling brighter than the purple polish on nine-year-old Desiree’s finger nails was the gleam in her eye.

A cool playroom in the basement of Community of Hope’s Housing Program building in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood had been transformed into an impromptu beauty salon, and Desiree and other girls in the transitional housing facility were being treated to manicures.

When AU freshmen Laura Vogler, Rachel Smith, and Carleigh Rixon arrived at the building last week, ready for a week of volunteer work, painting nails wasn’t on the agenda. That’s the beauty of AU’s Freshmen Service Experience, a voluntary program for incoming freshmen in which they complete community service at sites throughout the city. The group at Community of Hope planned to paint the aging facility’s halls and stairwells. For three days they did just that, covering a fading yellow hallway on the third floor with a fresh coat of ivory paint and applying another layer of black to the stairs and banisters. But as the first afternoon wore on, the facility’s youngest residents became more and more curious about their somewhat older visitors, and a spirit of friendship was born.

“The kids are super cute, and you want to make a very nice environment for them,” Vogler said. “One of the little boys cried when we left yesterday.”

He didn’t need to worry; the next day the students returned, eager to make over the girls and play trucks and assemble puzzles with the boys. Nearly 600 freshmen participated in this year’s Freshmen Service Experience, now in its 18th year. Scattered throughout 50 sites in the District, each group was led by upperclassmen who once participated as freshmen themselves.

“It’s a great way for incoming students to become acquainted with the D.C. area, with the nonprofit sector, and with a lot of the current issues that residents face,” said Marcy Campos, director of AU’s Community Service Center. “Through service, getting to know a neighborhood and talking to community members and staff members of these organizations, they get a first hand sense of the city they’re going to be living in for the next four years.”

At Bancroft Elementary School, just a few miles from Community of Hope, a group of AU students helped teachers move classrooms and prepare for the upcoming school year.
“They’re just priceless,” third- and fourth-grade teacher Lisa O’Neill said of Laura Tremulis and Cathleen Day, who were helping her unpack boxes and hang displays in her new classroom. “After 13 years I have a lot of books and materials, and they helped me move from the other side of the building—with a lot of steps. It really helps things move much more smoothly when the year starts.”

Tremulis, a Chicago native, was keen to participate in FSE.

“I did a lot of service at home, and I got a lot out of it,” she said. “The people that I helped ended up teaching me about the community. I felt privileged to be in their lives.”

Mutual appreciation seemed to carry the day at Community of Hope as well.

“The FSE volunteers this week are making quick work out of painting our hallways and stairwells,” said Karyn Cassella, volunteer manager at Community of Hope, and former director of AU’s Community Service Center. “It matters—not just because we’ve got some site inspections coming up—but because a clean, bright facility makes our families and children feel respected, safe, and valued.”

With the tips of her fingers now sufficiently pretty, Desiree began applying white polish to Rixon’s nails. As the nine-year-old meticulously painted each nail on her new friend’s fingers, it was tough to tell whose smile was bigger.