How do you serve?
Student volunteers change the world — and themselves
Part of what makes the St. Edward’s community so special is how dedicated everyone — faculty, staff and students — is to making the world a little bit better. For students who prefer a direct way to make a difference, community service is the perfect outlet.
But how’s a busy student supposed to fit community service into a schedule jam-packed with classes and extracurricular commitments? That’s the question that Jen Gerardi, program coordinator of S.E.R.V.E. Austin in the Office of Community Engagement, wants to help students solve.
S.E.R.V.E. stands for St. Edward’s Reflect Volunteer Engage. This program coordinates service opportunities, including one-day events (S.E.R.V.E. 1-Day) and ongoing weekly commitments (S.E.R.V.E. Austin), at locations like the Central Texas Food Bank, Casa Marianella, River City Youth Foundation and Keep Austin Beautiful.
Josue Damian ’19, who is still exploring majors, joined S.E.R.V.E. as an out-of-state freshman who knew no one in Texas. “It’s a good way to build relationships and to make yourself feel more at home at St. Edward’s, especially because you're given the opportunity to get out in Austin itself,” he says.
Of course, not all service opportunities on campus happen through S.E.R.V.E., although many do. What makes S.E.R.V.E. special is its emphasis on reflection; participants gather in groups to discuss what they’re thinking and feeling after their service project has ended.
“It’s more than just volunteering,” says Kristen Ranus ’18, a Social Work major who got involved through the Social Justice LLC as a freshman. “Service by itself is great, but you get another layer of understanding when you debrief with your group afterward. We talk about what we learned, what questions we still have and how we can apply this experience to our lives.”
The weekly S.E.R.V.E. Austin program brings students to one site every week for an entire semester — often mentoring or tutoring children, spending time with the elderly, assisting refugees or other at-risk populations, or helping adult ESL students.
“It’s about getting to know people, building trust, building community. And because it’s weekly, it keeps you accountable,” says Kristen. “Even as a group leader, sometimes I think I’d rather stay home and do my work. But every single time I do service, I feel refreshed.”
Finance major Amanda Rodriguez ’19 is one of five student coordinators who help plan a series of monthly S.E.R.V.E. 1-Day events, which can include gardening, painting and other one-time tasks. “It can be hard to choose sites students can sign up for because some are more popular than others,” she says. “When there’s an animal shelter site, those go super quick!”
No matter how little or how much time students can dedicate to service, the effects are striking.
“Students will actually change their whole career paths because of their service work,” Gerardi says. “One of my student leaders changed her major to Education because of her experience volunteering with kids.”
Kristen, for example, came to St. Edward’s as a Psychology major who wanted to help people but wasn’t sure how. After joining S.E.R.V.E., she switched to Social Work. She’s served at four different weekly sites over five semesters, tutoring elementary-aged students and spending time with the residents of a retirement home. Working with different groups will help her choose a population to focus on after graduation.
Others may not pursue a different career path, but they are almost invariably inspired to continue making a difference in some way. Amanda hopes to offer financial advising to a school district or nonprofit. Josue, a hip-hop artist, explores social justice issues in his music.
“Whether it’s just a day or a full semester of service, it can lead to a lifetime of change,” says Gerardi.
By Lauren Liebowitz