Community Development Cultivates Engaged Citizenship
Two programs implemented by the Office of Community Development are nationally recognized for their impact on the College constituency and local community.
For most first-year students at SUNY Brockport, Saturday of Service is their initial exposure to the importance of engaged citizenship on campus and in the community. For hundreds of them, it isn't the last.
Since its inception in 2010, Saturday of Service each year sends approximately 1,000 first-year students into the local community during the College’s Welcome Weekend to volunteer at one of 60 organizations or agencies. The event introduces students to the College’s tradition of volunteerism and helps them become acquainted with their new community.
Coordinator of Service and Community Building Nikole Van Wie ’16, who oversees this program and other service initiatives carried out by the Office of Community Development throughout the year, believes that first-year students’ early exposure to service programming builds a stronger sense of community.
“Saturday of Service plants that seed of curiosity in students,” said Van Wie. “I love when [those] who participate come back to the office to ask what additional things they can do to be more involved and engaged in the community. That’s when I know the program is successful.”
Among those students is freshman Elizabeth Bean, whose Saturday of Service experience inspired her to become more involved. She enrolled in Eagle Service Corps, which serves as the office’s platform for communicating volunteer opportunities to students, and joined the College’s Community Service Committee. She recently planned a campus initiative to support National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
“There was a point in my life where I was in a dark place and struggling with my mental health. Doing community service is my way of helping others in those dark places,” said Bean. “The most rewarding part is seeing the impact my service has on other people.”
Bean is thankful that Community Development staff members have provided her the resources, planning tools, and professional guidance she needed to make her vision a reality. She calls it a “dream come true.”
The program not only impacts the mindsets of student volunteers by inspiring them to engage in active citizenship; it has a measurable impact on the local community. In seven years, 6,300 Saturday of Service volunteers have dedicated nearly 14,000 service hours to organizations and agencies in the surrounding area, having an estimated impact of approximately $325,740.
Students’ efforts help strengthen ties between the College constituency and its community partners. Representatives from Christ Community Church, one of the organizations served each year, expressed their appreciation that the program encourages students to view the relationship between the College and the local community as a priority.
Saturday of Service is one of the largest-scale college events in New York State that has a lasting impact on the populations that participate, a principal reason why it was recently honored as one of the top student affairs programs in the country by NASPA, a leading professional organization for student affairs administrators in higher education.
The program was awarded the Civic Learning, Democratic Engagement, Service-Learning and related Excellence Award at the Gold level. According to NASPA, this recognition is a testament to the program’s success in educating students about engaged citizenship, democratic participation in their communities, respect and appreciation of diversity, applied learning, and social responsibility. The award will be presented at NASPA’s annual conference in March.
In 2015, the Office of Community Development was restructured in an effort to bolster its purpose on campus, a component of which was the establishment of three key pillars that help to define the office’s mission: leadership development, community service, and democratic engagement. This shift in the office’s focus has encouraged students not only to be involved on campus, but to take action in order to become contributing members of their communities.
“We know everyone has a passion; everyone cares about something,” said Karen Podsiadly, director of Community Development. “We help students recognize that there is a space for them to be civically engaged in their communities doing things that are important to them, and we teach them the skills they need to do that.”
Before the restructure, Podsiadly and Assistant Director of Community Development Kim Piatt were noticing a general sense of apathy toward community involvement among students. They sought to implement programming that teaches students to identify community needs and address them by making tangible changes through their involvement.
“It starts here at Brockport,” said Piatt. “We want students to practice taking ownership of the success of where they live now so they can use the skills they learn here later.”
Piatt spearheads Community Development’s Leadership Development Program (LDP), which is designed to help participants develop leadership skills by completing four consecutive levels of the program throughout their undergraduate years. Students in the preliminary Green level are challenged to think critically and develop individual values by participating in community service, campus events, and interactive workshops. By the time they reach the culminating Capstone level, they are serving as mentors, group advisors, or workshop presenters while planning the LDP’s annual Student Leadership Conference.
More than 300 alumni presenters, student participants, and faculty and staff volunteers attended this year’s conference on February 19, one of the largest in recent years. Sarah Gelfand ’15, who earned her Capstone certificate as a student, was a conference presenter. Now a graduate assistant at the University at Buffalo studying student affairs, Gelfand regularly returns to campus to present leadership workshops and mentor students.
“I love coming back to the community that gave me so much and seeing how much the [office] has grown,” said Gelfand. “I am motivated by the students I get to work with when I come back — they're amazing leaders.”
Gelfand appreciates that Community Development programs “challenge students to see things from a different point of view,” which she considers a vital post-graduation skill.
Observing the growth in students who participate in the program invokes a sense of pride in Piatt. “When a student says to me ‘I didn’t think I was a leader until I did this program,’ or ‘I realized through this program that I didn’t have to change who I am in order to be a leader,’ or ‘this program changed my life,’ that’s what I’m most proud of,” she said.
According to Piatt, two factors set the College’s Leadership Development Program apart from others across the country: its developmental structure and the involvement of more than 150 faculty, staff, and alumni who volunteer each year as advisors and facilitators for the program.
“The involvement of everyone creates an entire campus culture that views leadership as important,” said Piatt.
Like Saturday of Service, the LDP has been awarded a NASPA Excellence Gold Award. Recognized in the Student Union, Student Activities, Greek Life, and Leadership category, it was named the Grand Bronze winner in spring 2014 — third place among all Gold recipients of the Excellence Awards.
“The awards are confirmation that we’re doing the right thing,” said Podsiadly. “Our students are moving from a space of wanting to be a leader to actually practicing that. The more we help [them] move along the spectrum, the more they are able to go out and do work that needs to be done.”
Saturday of Service and the Leadership Development Program are two of a multitude of initiatives implemented by Community Development that seek to cultivate a culture of engaged citizenship among Brockport students.
This past year, the office’s voter engagement and education initiatives helped more than 1,000 students access their ballots by completing registration forms or absentee ballot requests. Community ambassadors, students who regularly host programs about a variety of topics, recently received a national grant from the American Association of University Women to organize a campus action project. The team will administer a month-long series of leadership and gender equality workshops as part of a campaign called ‘Be The Revolution.’ The office also organizes seminars, workshops, mentorships, advisorships, and a Leadership Society class offered through the College’s General Education program.
“Watching our students who plan these events and participate in these initiatives — all they do, their enthusiasm, their emotions, their nervousness but confidence…,” said Podsiadly; “they’re amazing.”