12/06/2012 06:00 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Just as Universities Are Called to Educate, Giving Back in Unique Ways Should Be Part of the Status Quo

Every higher educational institution experiences moderate to heavy change through the years -- new locations, new buildings, name changes, additional majors, or new student populations and for Catholic institutions, a growing lay faculty. As Universities grow, they must also acknowledge an inherent responsibility to give back to the community and to offer opportunities where none may have existed previously. With the recent celebration of Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, where we honor and give thanks to those great Americans who gave their lives to defend others, I am reminded of some programs aimed at honoring these citizens.

Many summers ago I had the opportunity of training with the local fire department. I trained with them and subjected myself, albeit briefly and safely, to the situations they encounter daily. I was even carried out of an upper story window by a firefighter. Their camaraderie and concern for fellow human beings are profound. These phenomenal people protect our well being every day.

First responders hone their mental and physical abilities to promptly and properly attend to any number of critical, emergent situations. However, to be an effective leader requires more than just having training in core job competencies -- it requires an understanding of how best to manage human behavior within an organization.

Enter Benedictine University's First Responder Program.

The events of September 11, 2001, forced me as a university president to look around my institution and to begin to see things differently. In 2001, Benedictine began the First Responder Program to provide a free education to firefighters and policemen to learn skills that would help them become better first responders and assist them in career transition if needed. Later, U.S. war veterans were added to the program, resulting in more than 800 first responders participating in the program pursuing degrees.

The University received a federal grant in 2005 that was supported by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-13th-Ill.), U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) and then Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama to help extend the program. Although that grant expired years ago and the program has winded down, first responders attending Benedictine continued to receive a sizeable discount.

As part of its mission and Benedictine values to serve others, the University seeks out ways to help the community for the greater good, not only during holiday seasons but throughout each year. Benedictine University strives to serve as an example for other higher education institutions that we have a responsibility not only to properly educate and serve our student body but to the greater community and society. As the recession lingered and the disheartening stories of the growing unemployed grew, again Benedictine thought "what can we do?" In 2011 Benedictine established the "Illinois Back to Work" program to help the Illinois long-term unemployed get free tuition toward earning a first-time bachelor's degree.

Improving one's education and skill set continues to be the answer to better sustainable jobs and success in life. As the Christmas holidays approach, it is incumbent upon global citizens to understand that helping others earn success is an intrinsic obligation each of us must recognize directly relates to our own success, institutionally and personally.