by Leah Twilley
photos by Amanda Pitts
Once a week Grand Valley student Jessica Mac Vane meets with her pal, Jaden, a 10-year-old student at Harrison Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids.
Sometimes they go bowling, sometimes they go to the park, and sometimes they just talk on the phone. “I met Jaden when I was a freshman at Grand Valley and he was 7 years old. We just clicked,” said Mac Vane, from Zeeland. “He’s had a lot of ups and downs in his life. Last year he was put in foster care, so I liked being there as a stable figure in his life during that time.”
Jaden and Mac Vane met through Pals Student Mentors, a student organization that seeks to positively influence the lives of at-risk youth in Grand Rapids. More than 160 Grand Valley students serve as mentors for children who attend Harrison, Sibley or Coit elementary schools. Mac Vane said she came to Grand Valley wanting to help and found that outlet through Pals Student Mentors.
“I think some people are afraid to get involved in community service because there’s so much need everywhere, it can be overwhelming, but helping one very important person by being a positive role model is huge and makes a big impact,” she said.
Mac Vane, president of Pals Student Mentors, is one of 11,753 Grand Valley students who collectively spent more than 1 million hours volunteering in their communities in 2013. Their service generated an estimated economic impact of nearly $24 million, according to Independent Sector.
Close friends Jessica Mac Vane and Jaden met through Pals Student Mentors, a student organization that seeks to positively influence at-risk youth in Grand Rapids.
Jeff Mutch, coordinator for the Community Service Learning Center, said service learning, such as mentoring, is a high-impact practice that is shown to increase rates of persistence and retention, and deepens the amount of learning. “If students can incorporate knowledge learned in the classroom with a real community need, it can be a powerful teaching pedagogy,” he said.
At the Kent School Services Network, Sergio Cira Reyes is the community school coordinator and has worked with Pals Student Mentors over the years to match members with K-12 students. His goal is to increase student achievement and part of that, he said, is getting the community involved.
“We work with our students when they’re in school, but our time with them is limited. Pals mentors reach them when they’re outside of school and you can definitely see the impact one-on-one attention has on the students,” Reyes said.
Grand Valley has a rich history of community service and service learning. Volunteer GVSU, founded in the early 1990s, served as the core group of about 25 student organizations that focused on service and advocacy. As the university grew, so did the number of organizations in Volunteer GVSU.
In 2006, the Community Service Learning Center, located in the Office of Student Life in the Kirkhof Center, was established as a space to centralize and track all student-related community service and service learning initiatives. Then in 2012, the Office for Community Engagement, located in the College of Community and Public Service, was established to bring alignment and direction to Grand Valley’s community engagement.
Members of the Student Environmental Coalition spend many Saturday mornings volunteering at Blandford Nature Center in Walker.
“Our role in CSLC is to help students understand that community service is not only part of the university’s mission, but that it’s important to their personal and professional development,” Mutch said. “Engaging in a community is valuable for preparing for a career or exploring career opportunities.”
Part of that includes matching students with a nonprofit. “I joke that my work can sometimes be similar to Match.com,” he said. “Students come to CSLC, and based on their interests and passions, we match them with an organization.”
Over the past year, Mutch has worked to develop an official reporting system of all community service and service learning activities from students, faculty and staff members, and alumni. The Service Tracker, online at www.gvsu.edu/service, allows a user to add a community service activity, amount of hours, dates, and an opportunity to reflect on the experience. “Students can form a nice portfolio piece that showcases all the ways they were engaged in helping the community during their time at Grand Valley,” he said.
Valerie Jones, assistant director of Student Life, leads Grand Valley’s leadership and service initiatives. She said as more students and others from the campus community start to add their community service activities to the Service Tracker, the university will perform more in-depth analyses of community service. “We can start looking at how engagement in community activities are impacting student success at Grand Valley,” she said. “We hope to see answers to questions like ‘Are students persisting along their identified areas of study?’ ‘Are they graduating in an ideal timeline?’ and ‘How are these experiences related to their GPAs?’”
Mutch said some faculty members incorporate service learning in their classes because it’s attractive to students and they find it satisfying. So much so, that many students carry it on into adulthood.
“So many students end up volunteering because they think it’ll look good on their resume, but many find that it really awakens something in them; they discover a passion they didn’t know they had and all of a sudden, it becomes a priority in their life,” said Mutch.
Bill Kinter, president of the Student Environmental Coalition, is passionate about sustainabilty. He has organized campuswide recycling and composting efforts and arranges regular visits to the 143-acre Blandford Nature Center in Walker, where SEC members help clear trails and keep the grounds clean.
“It doesn’t feel like work when you are having fun doing it,” said Kinter, a marketing and philosophy major from Grand Blanc. “It’s satisfying to be out there contributing to something you believe in and support.”
Jessie Schulte, land stewardship volunteer coordinator for Blandford Nature Center, said the center could not function without volunteers. “We’re completely sustained by volunteers and donations, and a large percentage of our volunteers come from Grand Valley,” she said. “It’s been wonderful to work with them.”
For Mac Vane and thousands of other Grand Valley students, giving back is important. The result: more than 2,600 community groups in 2012-2013 were affected by the time and talents of Grand Valley students.
Mutch said: “Students are showing that they’re Lakers for a Lifetime by giving back. Community service is a priority at Grand Valley. We don’t just exist in the community, we’re part of it. We have a responsibility to give back.”