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Freshmen Log Over 13,000 Volunteer Hours

Students pose at the Center City Public Charter School in northwest Washington. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

At the time, Will Herman, SIS/BA ’09, didn’t focus on his 2005 Freshman Service Experience (FSE). “If I remember correctly, we painted the walls of a nonprofit,” he chuckled.
   
But five years later, the Teach for America alumnus said the experience was formative—personally and professionally.

“As an 18-year-old, you’re trying to find your direction in life. For me, the seeds of service were planted then . . . I realized there’s a huge need in D.C.” said Herman, who volunteered as a tutor with American University’s FLY (Facilitating Leadership in Youth) throughout his undergraduate career.

Now a fourth and fifth grade math teacher at Bruce Monroe Elementary School, Herman reflected on his experience while watching 11 AU students cheerfully sort through library books as part of the 20th annual Freshman Service Experience, August 17–19.

“It’s a little odd to be on the other side of things,” laughed Herman, one of 12 AU alumni and grad students who work at the northwest Washington public school. “We appreciate the students’ help so much. The work they’re doing is going to allow our kids greater access to a variety of literature.”

The volunteers at Bruce Monroe, who sorted hundreds of books by genre and reading level, were among 614 students who fanned out to 52 sites across the Washington area, including the Capitol Area Food Bank, Folger Shakespeare Library, and the National Mall. The students volunteered 13,660 hours, bringing the program’s 20-year tally to well over 200,000 service hours.

“Quite a few groups have come to depend on us for three solid days of work,” said Marcy Fink Campos, director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service. “They see AU as a resource and a partner, and FSE sets the tone for other service projects throughout the year.”

The Washington Home and Community Hospices, a short walk from AU, is another organization that counts on freshman volunteers. Mollie Haines, director of communications, looks forward to their arrival every August.

“It’s nice to hear the students’ laughter,” she said. “When our residents arrive here, their worlds have gotten very small. So, when the world comes to them, it’s a wonderful thing.”

In addition to tending the gardens and working in the kitchen, the 24 volunteers also gave some of the center’s 192 residents manicures, and sang and played the piano to entertain them. University College students in Professor Laura Juliano’s psychology seminar also recorded the seniors’ oral histories and made casts of their hands, on which they wrote the residents’ greatest accomplishments. One read “This is the hand that raised 12 children”; another proclaimed “This is the hand that flew a B-17 bomber in World War II.”

The project, said Haines, was a reminder that “these people mattered.”

“Everyone here has a story to share, and we’re so thankful to the AU students for listening,” she continued.

FSE, which began with 30 volunteers from the School of International Service, is primarily student run. This year, five student coordinators gave up their summer vacations in order to scout sites, recruit and register freshmen, train 93 student leaders, and manage a $40,000 budget.

During her own Freshman Service Experience in 2007, coordinator Sara Stahlberg caught the service bug and made one of her best college friends. She hopes the experience has a lasting impact on this year’s crop of freshmen, as well.

“I love creating the program that is the first exposure for incoming freshmen,” she said. “We view this as a stepping stone toward additional service and engagement in the D.C. community.”

It’s also a good opportunity for freshmen to get to know their neighbors, said Campos.

“Many students have seen the monuments and museums before. Through FSE, they learn that D.C. is a city of over half a million people with a whole range of concerns and needs. It’s a place with diverse neighborhoods and a rich history,” she said. “This city is their home for the next four years and we hope they continue to roll up their sleeves and get involved."