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Day of Service Connects Students and Community

CCES - MLK Day of Service 2013

Spirit of Service

Few figures embody the meaning of community engagement and service quite like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inspired by his life and achievements, some 300 AU students headed out across Washington, DC, on Saturday the 19th to join the university’s annual MLK Day of Service. Volunteer opportunities at nine different worksites ranged from spending time with the elderly to developing a public service announcement for HIV/AIDS awareness.

AU president Dr. Neil Kerwin was on hand for the day. He visited the Campus Kitchen project, where students prepared meals for DC’s homeless.

“To me, it’s one of the signal events of the year. It is probably one of the most visible and dramatic events because so many students do something on one day,” he said. “Since I’ve been associated with the institution, service has been central to the mission.”

Before students headed out to their various work projects, the day started with the naming of recent recipients for the Eagle Endowment, a student-generated and managed fund that supports students' longer-term engagement efforts in the community. Volunteers also enjoyed a lecture by Dr. Clarence Lusane on MLK’s connection to President Barack Obama and his inauguration that weekend.

For School of Communication junior Chelsea Williamson, the meaning of the day stayed with her as she went out to serve.

“For me, it’s just in the memory of Doctor King. He did so much to help people, especially those that didn’t have anything,” she said. “I really just wanted to give back today…Whether it’s just one day or one meal, it’s still going to make an impact on someone.”

National Movement

Coordinated by AU’s Center for Community Engagement & Service, the event counted itself part of a national push for service in Dr. King’s name. Donald Curtis – the Center’s coordinator of programs and operations – organized AU’s work projects for this more than a decade old tradition.

He echoed Williamson, hoping that – though it may just be one day – the MLK Day of Service can inspire students to continue engaging with the DC community and the DC community to continue engaging with AU.

“We’re going to do as much as we can in this small stint of time to make an impact in students’ lives,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, relationship building with nonprofits and raising awareness for our students.”

Still, the event’s small stint of time hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Corporation for National Community Service listed AU on the White House website as one of the organization’s open project sites for the nation’s day of service.

Director of AmeriCorps VISTA Mary Strasser even visited students at the Campus Kitchen project to see first-hand what AU was doing in the community. For her, the university’s service wonks represent an ideal group of candidates for her organization.

“American University has a good tradition of service in the region,” she said. “There are a number of students who go on to AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA when they graduate.”

Enduring Commitment

This tradition and reputation for service is part of what brought College of Arts & Sciences sophomore Derek Siegel to AU and, later, to take part in the day’s work.

“That’s one of the reasons why I chose to come here. I came for the School of International Service. So, it’s definitely an emphasis,” he said. “Even though I switched majors, I’ve really valued that. It’s on the forefront of everyone’s minds.”

A former AU alumnus himself, Dr. Kerwin was happy to experience the MLK Day of Service this year. It illustrated the commitment to engagement written into the university’s strategic goals, but it also evidenced how that commitment has extended from his time as an undergraduate student through to his tenure as AU president.

“On a personal level and a professional level, the fact that we’re this engaged on this day means a lot,” he said. “I think everybody on campus is proud of what the students are doing and what the Office of Campus Life has organized here.”