8 Great Schools for Community Service

For many, making the most of your college years means not only balancing academics with a social life but getting involved in service -- whether volunteering at a local soup kitchen or at an orphanage halfway around the world. While any community you land in will always be in need of a helping hand, here are a handful of schools that have placed service at the forefront of their mission.

Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama
At Birmingham-Southern, service can take place at an ESL program in the city, at an addiction rehabilitation center in San Francisco, or in an exiled Tibetan community in southwestern India. "There are all types of service experiences available at BSC, from one-off efforts to more intensive experiences," says Kristin Harper, director of service-learning. "Often, students will progress from 'thin' to 'thicker' service experiences during their time here."

"Thicker" experiences might include the "alternative spring break" programs, or the month-long service-learning projects offered during the January "exploration term." These projects place teams in communities around the world, and are backed by fundraising and designated scholarships to ensure equal access for all interested students. "I took a group of education students to Ghana this past January," says Harper. "They honed their teaching abilities while they were abroad, and teachers observing them back home have remarked that they're now able to go deeper, having passed that trial by fire in rural African schools."

BSC also maintains a roster of community partnerships coordinated by dedicated student liaisons, giving students an opportunity to get involved with ten local agencies.

Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida
While many colleges offer service experiences geared toward serving underprivileged students in the community or toward promoting sustainable agriculture, few think to roll these two aims into one holistic design -- yet that is exactly what Eckerd College accomplishes through its Edible Peace Patch Project. The Edible Peace Patch nonprofit is the brainchild of Kent "Kip" Curtis, assistant professor of environmental studies, whose involvement at local Lakewood Elementary inspired him (and Eckerd students) to build a 13-bed organic food garden there. Now Eckerd students help students around St. Petersburg grow their own collard greens and eggplants, garbanzo beans and carrots. They teach them about healthy cooking in the school kitchens, and have developed a science curriculum around organic farming.

The results have been transformative in many ways, says Curtis. "At [Lakewood], when we had a PTA meeting, we'd get two or three parents showing up," he recalls. "Now we had an end-of-the-year harvest festival and 300 parents showed up."

In addition to the Edible Peace Patch Project and other local opportunities for eco-service, Eckerd offered no fewer than 19 spring break service projects in 2012, which found students volunteering in locations ranging from Venezuela to Iceland to Detroit.

Hope College in Holland, Michigan
When Hope College was recognized with the Carnegie Foundation's Community Engagement Classification in 2010, Dr. Richard Frost, vice president and dean of students, emphasized that Hope's lauded service accomplishments were never calculated merely for good press. Instead, they arose from natural and earnest impulses toward community engagement. "What's most heartening and unique is that this does not emanate from a place of centrality, but from our own hearts and Christian convictions that call us to serve one another," he said.

Indeed, Hope's greatest service achievements have all been on the backs of student enthusiasm and geared unswervingly toward very real results. "Time to Serve," a voluntary day of service for new students every September, boasted around 100 participants in its inaugural year. Now, 11 years later, that number has ballooned to almost 400. Similarly, the annual "Dance Marathon," a student-run fundraiser for the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, just surpassed the $1 million marker in its 13th year. That's an average of $77,200 a year, and an extraordinary feat for a school of Hope's size.

"I believe deeply that students who care do things with their time and talents that matter," says Frost. "Hope students do care for others, want to help others and do it in a manner that is quiet, humble and makes a difference."

Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania
Paul Fullmer, LVC's chaplain and director of community service and volunteerism, recalls what happened when the town of Annville flooded last September. "For a couple of days, we were cut off almost completely, but only one student was written up for misconduct during that time," he says. "Instead, students were hugely interested in helping out in the community. I had 50 to 100 students show up at my office asking how they could get involved in responding to a very serious crisis."

Students' commitment to service runs deep at LVC, with campus clubs, athletic teams, residence halls, and Greek organizations helping out in the community and on campus. The school, in turn, provides additional incentive for students' participation in service projects. "We integrated volunteering information with Blackboard, enrolling every student in a community service 'class,'" explains Fullmer. "Students can then see how many hours they've logged, where they were served and how they were earned. They get real-time reporting on their efforts."

As students accumulate hours, they move toward receiving bronze, silver and gold awards that show up on their campus résumés. "In other words," says Fullmer, "volunteering can help them gain employment."

Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania
Community engagement at Misericordia is an entrenched piece of the school mission, reflected in the four charisms of mercy, service, justice and hospitality. Misericordia students, who turned in more than 105,000 hours of community service last year, certainly reflect these values, but they also cultivate a fifth: empathy. "Our nuclear medical technology students do a service-learning course to work with different marginalized populations," explains Linda Ross, director of service-learning. "The department has students complete this course early in the major, so they can develop that empathy right out of the gate."

Service inspires empathy, and empathy inspires further service. Students returning from Misericordia's long-running Guyana program, where they worked at an orphanage, established pajama and underwear drives for the children upon their arrival home. Others returning from a trip to serve undocumented workers in Laredo, Texas, subsequently participated in a conference on immigration in D.C. Students who had begun a service relationship to nearby Noxen Township turned out in droves to help with flood relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

"The flood relief occupied two to three weekends of really dedicated work," recalls Chris Somers, director of campus ministry. "Since then, we've continued to work with Noxen organizations, such as a food bank, a community center and a clothing closet. We started tutoring elementary school kids every Monday and Tuesday."

Misericordia also offers more than 50 service-learning courses in nearly every discipline, from English and sociology to physics and nursing. For instance, communications students recently designed an outreach campaign for the Disaster Recovery Coalition of Luzerne County. "We hope to illustrate that service is not just joining a board," says Ross. "You can provide service within your own field, give back and help others directly."

Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio
"We don't just want to be the proverbial college on the hill, or Willy Wonka's gated chocolate factory," says Melissa Gilbert, associate dean of experimental learning and community engagement. "Our students and our community are one and the same -- there is no 'town and gown.'" Indeed, community engagement is a way of life at Otterbein, an engrained habit strong enough to sustain 14 weekly service programs run by students and more than 60 faculty-led service-learning courses and research programs.

Otterbein students get involved in nearly every kind of service-oriented work imaginable, creating their own programs where they identify needs in the community. A music student, for instance, developed "The B.E.A.T. for Music," an organization dedicated to both music education outreach and public advocacy for music programs. Both of these aspects, argues Gilbert, are equally important during a time when school budgetary cuts often put the arts at a disadvantage.

"At Otterbein, we look at systematic reasons why service is needed and provide training and resources for students to make sure they understand the greater complexity of issues," says Gilbert.

Otterbein's dedication to community service has been consistently recognized by the White House. 2012 is the sixth year Otterbein has won the Award with Distinction on the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll since the award was established in 2006. In 2007, Otterbein won the President's Award for General Community Service, the Honor Roll's top commendation.

Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee
Uncovering purpose and meaning is an essential component of the Sewanee education, says Elizabeth Wilson, internship coordinator for career and leadership development. "We're looking to provide students with clarity and direction, to help them develop self-knowledge so they can answer the questions, 'Who am I? What is my place in the word?'" she says.

This intellectual and spiritual seriousness finds expression in unique service opportunities such as the Lilly Summer Discernment Institute, which offers students a $2,400 stipend to take on an unpaid internship in the field of their choosing. Critically, the six weeks are flanked by two "weeks of discernment" on Sewanee's campus, designed for students to consider whether a life of service is right for them. "We want them to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses," says Wilson, "not just what they're doing but why they're doing it."

In total, Sewanee offers more than $350,000 toward unpaid and service-oriented internships every summer. During the year, students are active in countless arenas of service: some, for instance, become fully trained members of Sewanee's Emergency Medical Services or Volunteer Fire Department, which carries a three-year commitment.

"It's too easy for one to insulate oneself," says Wilson. "But the students who choose to pop the bubble, to step out, will find that it enriches the conceptual or theoretical basis of their education."

Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania
It's impressive when one college community aims to log 10,000 service hours in a single month. It's even more impressive when they exceed that goal by over 7,000 hours. SU SERVE takes place every year during the month of April and finds Susquehanna students, alumni, faculty, staff, parents and friends pledging their time to volunteering around the world. Some engage in specific efforts organized by alumni both in Selinsgrove and throughout the United States, and still others offer up volunteer hours of their own choosing. What's the secret to their impressive results? According to Becky Deitrick, director of alumni relations, it's this: Susquehannans are already active in service anyway.

"We knew going into this that alumni were already leading lives of service," she says. "They carried that tradition forward. They could participate from wherever they live and work. Most continued on with the service projects they would have done anyway in their own communities."
Long-running efforts such as SU SERVE, along with a host of local and global service-learning programs, have earned Susquehanna consistent national recognition for its dedication to community service, including from four of the past five U.S. presidents.