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American Today

Student Life

Freshman Service Experience Shakes Up the City

By Sarah Stankorb

FSE 2011 at Union Station

(Photo:Hilary Schwab)

It was apt that Freshman Service Experience (FSE) borrowed its 2011 theme from The Wizard of Oz, welcoming students with the theme “There’s no place like D.C.”

Rather than beginning with a tornado, per Oz, FSE’s check-in featured the earthquake that rocked the east coast Tuesday, August 23.

For students acclimating to their new home, the surprise natural event was just part of a process that brought them into the fold of their new home, and a community where they would invest some of their first days as Washingtonians.

FSE, a twenty-one-year-old community service program housed in AU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service (CCES), is all at once an introduction to the challenges faced by the District, a chance to join 56 organizations that are making a positive difference in the surrounding community, and an opportunity to meet like-minded students—connections that often blossom into lasting friendships.

Despite Tuesday’s rumbler, FSE events carried on with an opening ceremony that included Stephen Bronskill, founder of the AU Community Service Coalition and Paul Monteiro, associate director, White House Office of Public Engagement.

Each student then scrawled his or her expectations for FSE onto yellow slips of paper that would become their own yellow brick road, one covered in hopes like “I want to make a senior citizen laugh,” “I want to get to know my classmates,” and “I really want to get involved in nonprofits.”

By Wednesday morning, over six hundred volunteers were ready to roll up their sleeves. At Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, service meant gumballs. There, under the auspices of Target and Heart of America, volunteers created a gumball mural. Imagine zooming in on the pixels of a photograph. Here, volunteers were artists and pixel makers.

At Kimbell Elementary School and with guidance from local grassroots nonprofit Lands and Waters, FSE volunteers established living classrooms, permanent wetland gardens for students to explore the importance and delicacy of watershed ecology.
Lands and Waters vice president Kris Unger explained to FSE coordinators that student enthusiasm for living classrooms is high, but grant limitations can hamper the group’s capacity to create them for schools.  

Funding for the FSE-built living classroom was made available through the Eagle Endowment, AU’s student-established and overseen funding source for community service initiatives supporting the public good. Lands and Waters staff expressed their appreciation for AU’s double contribution in making the learning space a reality.

Said FSE coordinator, Tyler Sadonis ’14, “There were all these different means of AU helping out, in terms of the Eagle Endowment and Freshman Service Experience.”

Wednesday evening wrapped with sessions hosted by D.C. community leaders and policy makers, discussing the systemic challenges that result in the myriad needs that FSE volunteers had worked so hard to meet.

Despite Thursday’s torrential rains, volunteers headed out in “Service WONK” t-shirts to sites across the District, taking cover when necessary. All told, volunteers completed 10,000 hours of service by the end of FSE’s two days in the community.

At closing, Washington, D.C. deputy mayor for health and human services, Beatriz Otero, President Neil Kerwin and Robin Adams, assistant director, CCES, congratulated students for the deep impact they had made across their new city.

In a joking reference to the earthquake that marked FSE’s launch this year—but with a true nod to the impact made by volunteers—Adams remarked, “The new class is already shaking things up.”