When first-year student Darya Iranmanesh initially learned of the Explore DC program, she thought it would be an “adventure” where she could meet other students while visiting different parts of the city, but she quickly found the experience to be much more than that.
The experience made Iranmanesh more acutely aware of the city’s different communities and the significant issues and challenges faced by its residents. “Explore DC really opened my eyes to a lot of issues in DC—specifically, food justice, minority education, and the lack of city resources. I never realized how much culture mattered in DC. The program inspired me to challenge my pre-existing views—many of which were false or even nonexistent,” said Iranmanesh, who organized donated articles of clothing and assembled bags of produce and non-perishable food to share with community members in need at Martha’s Table Headquarters in Southeast.
As part of Explore DC, students visited historic sites and performed a day of service with one of AU community partners during the weeklong immersive learning opportunity held as part of All-American Welcome. It’s the 30th year of this university tradition that included first-year students and second-year students who did not get to participate in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iranmanesh says more service opportunities are in her future. “I definitely will be taking action to help address food justice. I am taking a class related to the topic and plan to apply what I learned from my visit to Martha’s Table,” she said. “I want to revisit Anacostia and Columbia Heights and volunteer more—perhaps with Martha’s Table—in and around the DMV area. I also would like to contribute towards the efforts of other similar organizations.”
Marcy Campos, director of AU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service (CCES), said that CCES had to reinvent the Explore DC program to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions and protocols and include second-year students for the first time. “We were faced with the challenge of limiting our number of volunteers to 100 per day while still allowing multiple opportunities for freshmen and sophomores to participate, all at a time when fewer nonprofits were willing to have large numbers of people come to their sites,” Campos said.
Despite the challenges of organizing such an ambitious city-wide effort during the pandemic, this year’s activities engaged 86 first-year and 71 second-year students, 27 team leaders (juniors, seniors), and graduate students, spanned eight DC neighborhoods, and benefitted 14 non-profit organizations with 580 hours of service. Community partners included Martha’s Table, Alliance of Concerned Men, Latin American Youth Center (LAYC), Shepard’s Table, Veterans on the Rise, DC Bilingual, Jubilee, Housing Up, Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild, Thrive DC, DC Doors, Marvin Gaye Greening Center, A Wider Circle, and Bread 4 the City.
Student volunteers performed myriad service activities including gardening and cleanup projects, sorting donated clothes, packing school backpacks with supplies, organizing pantries, and providing food to community members.
Campos said the Explore DC program not only orients students to their new home, but also gives them an idea of the amount of good they can do not only in DC but throughout the world. “We believe that engaging in the city through community service, exposure to the nonprofit sector and the issues they address, and exploring diverse neighborhoods gets our students excited about future involvement in DC, their new home,” Campos said. “After participating in Explore DC, we hope that they will take advantage of the many community-based learning opportunities, tutoring with DC Reads, and consider alternative break programs which benefit local, national, and international causes."
Their Explore DC experiences continue to influence older students as well, so much so that they returned to lead this year’s cohort of student volunteers. Graduate student James Chan, who led student volunteers at LAYC, said the nation’s capital is more than its monuments or Hollywood image, and students get “a more intimate glimpse into what the District is really all about” by serving with Explore DC’s partner organizations.
DC “is a place with a great diversity of people and a diversity of issues that desperately need to be addressed. Explore DC provides an opportunity for new AU students learn about these issues that are not readily apparent on the surface,” Chan said.
AU junior Anjali Singh, who learned about gentrification and the vast inequities in the criminal justice system during her first-year Explore DC experience, now volunteers with the Equal Justice Initiative to help free wrongly incarcerated people.
This year she led a group of Explore DC first- and second-year students at Veterans on the Rise, where they organized donated clothes for veterans. “It was a very fulfilling experience traveling to Ward 7 and talking to the people who worked there and see how our work would benefit veterans. The organization’s staff was so grateful that we were able and willing to help, and that made me all the more grateful to be there,” Singh said.
She said she hopes this experience encourages and inspires these first- and second-year students “to build a fiery passion within themselves—much like the Explore DC experience did for me—to perform more service and help address inequities to make both the DC community and the country more just.”