To annually clock more than one million hours of community service, Indiana State students and employees are (almost) always volunteering or thinking of new ways to serve.
Aiyana Koon went on her first service trip with fellow Sycamores three years ago.
Since then, she’s been on roughly a dozen other volunteer excursions all over the country, even traveling outside the United States to Jamaica.
Through the Alternative Breaks program on campus, Koon realized she had a deep passion for community service. Koon, 25, is now enrolled in Indiana State’s graduate program for student affairs and serves as a graduate assistant for the Center for Community Engagement.
After she finishes her master’s degree, Koon said she hopes to get a job connecting college students with community service opportunities. She knows first-hand how those experiences can shape a student’s life.
“It gives them a sense of belonging,” said Koon, who is originally from Batesville, Ind. “It gives them a sense of purpose. ‘I am actually making a difference to someone.’ A lot of people think, ‘Oh, with all the problems going on today, this one thing isn’t going to mean anything.’ But it does. If they get involved at a young age, it helps them become a better person and more inclined to volunteer later in life.”
The desire to serve others runs deep at Indiana State. The campus has made a name for itself in this area, repeatedly earning high marks for its community service efforts in national college rankings.
Ask any student, faculty member or staffer about community service at Indiana State, and invariably they will tell you it’s just what you do as a Sycamore.
“There’s something about serving together that makes people bond — that’s what’s special about the ISU community,” said Brianne Huxford, a senior dietetics major from Rosedale, Ind. “Serving is part of what we do. It helps us all feel like part of a family, like we are all linked together with the common goal of helping others. Service is just something that happens here.”
Service in focus
Though organic community service efforts were underway in prior years, the university began to make it a top priority in the early 2000s during the strategic planning process led by President Lloyd Benjamin. Around the same time, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities began encouraging member schools to think more critically about their institutions’ role within the broader community.
The focus on community service became even more explicit around 2010, when the university underwent an accreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission.
Under the leadership of President Dan Bradley, who helped create the new Division of Engagement, Indiana State’s commitment to community service has continued to grow stronger.
“We had always been committed to doing that kind of work to some extent, but if we really embraced it and put more effort and resources toward it, we thought we could have an even bigger impact on the community, on the state and on our students,” said Nancy Rogers, vice president of university engagement.
The campus community took that directive and ran with it. Now, students devote more than one million hours to community service each year.
Community service infiltrates nearly every nook and cranny of campus. More than a thousand first-year students participate in Donaghy Day before they even start classes. Student groups regularly partner with area nonprofits to fundraise or raise awareness about a particular issue.
Faculty have embedded community engagement into their scholarship and teaching methods, and it’s on the syllabus for hundreds of Indiana State courses. Alumni have embraced service as part of their Indiana State identity and continue this work after they graduate.
“When you think about a million hours, obviously that’s not just a few people — everyone is involved,” Rogers said. “In practice, what that means is almost every student is engaged in some kind of activity every year. It’s just part of what we do, so students know that they’re going to be involved in this work the whole time they’re here.”
Students see benefits
For students, community service is a way to connect their studies to the world around them. But the university also hopes it instills a lifelong desire to serve their community, wherever they end up after graduation.
“It enhances whatever they’re learning about in the classroom or the work they’re going to do professionally, but they also are able to see the ways their actions can have an impact,” Rogers said. “We think it helps students be better citizens when they leave the university.”
As they work with area nonprofits, students also learn that social issues are complex and nuanced — there’s far more middle ground than what plays out in modern political discourse. Through that discovery, they learn how to be engaged and informed citizens of a democracy, said Linda Maule, dean of the University College.
“We need to develop a generation of problem-solvers who wish to eradicate poverty or who want to ensure that everybody gets a high-quality education — whatever the problem might be,” Maule said. “That they can come to the problem by thinking outside of the box and understanding that multiple perspectives will probably strengthen the solution.”
Community service opportunities for students range from intensive, highly structured programs to drop-in, one-time events. The university hopes to reach as many students as possible by offering service opportunities with varying levels of commitment.
Roughly 40 percent of the university’s federal work study award goes toward community service work, meaning that many students who qualify work for a nonprofit during their time at the university.
Similarly, this semester the university launched the Sycamore Community Work program, which places students in part-time jobs at nonprofit agencies. The university and the nonprofit split the cost of the students’ wages.
On the other end of the spectrum, the university hosts regular “Stop and Serve” events at the Hulman Memorial Student Union. Students can stop by for a few minutes between classes for quick service activities, such as making hygiene kits of area homeless shelters or writing postcards to veterans.
“You have to meet students where they are,” said Cat Paterson, faculty fellow for the Center for Community Engagement and professor of applied medicine and rehabilitation.
Teaching and research
Like many other faculty members at Indiana State, Paterson regularly incorporates community service into the courses she teaches. Students who take her online biomedical ethics class are required to spend time working with a nonprofit in their community, then make a video reflecting on their service-learning experiences.
“Yes, it’s only a few hours, but that’s how we open the door and establish in a student’s mind that this is something they can do moving forward, that this leads to a public good and enhances the community they live in,” Paterson said. “It plants a seed in the mind of the students.”
To truly take the university’s commitment to the next level, faculty have begun integrating community engagement into the promotion, tenure and reappointment process.
“As an example of one’s scholarship, you might publish a book, but you also might help transform a school,” said Jack Maynard, professor of educational leadership and provost emeritus. “We have numerous faculty whose scholarship falls outside the traditional framework. Furthermore, this work is important to the community, it’s important to our students, it’s important to the campus.”
Tina Kruger, a gerontologist who chairs the department of multidisciplinary studies, exemplifies that philosophy. Students in her undergraduate classes regularly venture into the Terre Haute community to work on projects with older adults or to help nonprofits answer research questions.
One of her classes created a recipe book for United Way of the Wabash Valley to encourage residents of senior living communities to cook healthy meals using ingredients they purchased from the organization’s mobile food market. Another class created brochures about an array of health topics for “Dine with a Doc,” a community education program led by Senior Education Ministries.
Working with community partners provides students with practical, hands-on applications of what they’re learning in the classroom, while at the same time giving local nonprofits some much-needed help.
“A lot of nonprofit organizations have a hard time getting the resources they need to meet their objectives,” Kruger said. “Working with whoever the community partner is, we can find out what they need and what we can do to help, while at the same time meeting the needs of my students and myself as a faculty member.”
On the scholarship side, Kruger frequently publishes research about bringing community engagement into the classroom.
“It’s great to see the focus shifting to value this work because a lot of the time in academia, the value is on the scholarship of discovery — theories that nobody has figured out yet,” she said. “Yes, we can do that within our disciplines, but we can also apply our disciplinary knowledge to real-world problems and make the community a better place at the same time.”
For many nonprofits in the Wabash Valley, being near Indiana State is like having a small army of volunteers standing by to help at any time.
Without the 50 to 75 students who volunteer regularly throughout the school year (and dozens more who volunteer intermittently), staff with Chances and Services for Youth, a nonprofit serving children of the Wabash Valley, say the organization’s programs would not be as effective.
“The impacts are endless,” said Khrista Beliles of Chances and Services for Youth. “The relationships that are being created are amazing to watch. They are helping the children in various ways from character development to social and emotional support to giving the children a role model.”
While Indiana State’s focus on serving others has obvious tangible benefits for organizations in the Wabash Valley, it has also deepened the bond between the community and the university.
“When you talk about the town-gown relationship, it has many dimensions,” said Maynard. “Some of it is building residence halls and having kids shop downtown. But it’s also removing the perceived wall and letting the community see the real value of having a university nearby. And through community engagement that value shows up every day.”