Community Engagement Institute Takes Thoughtful Approach to Service

September 9, 2019

Amanda Nagy

student removing invasive plants.
First-year student volunteers remove invasive plants from the grounds of Kendal at Oberlin.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

The rebranded Community Engagement Institute helps students see possibilities for continued service throughout their time at Oberlin.

For more than two decades, Oberlin has offered a day during orientation that acclimates students to their new educational home through hands-on service work with local community partners. Formerly Day of Service, this introduction to organizations in Oberlin and surrounding communities in Lorain County builds a foundation for continued service throughout students’ college careers. 

On August 31, the Bonner Center piloted a new Community Engagement Institute for more than 100 student volunteers. Rather than launching into service projects early in the day as the program was structured in the past, the day began with breakout sessions led by alumni and community leaders. This served as a primer for issues related to working in the arts, civic engagement, cultural preservation, education, environment, and social services. A workshop on volunteer etiquette and ethical principles of community engagement was facilitated by student leader volunteers.

In the afternoon, students went to work in groups at 13 sites, including long-standing partners Oberlin Community Services, the Oberlin Heritage Center, Firelands Association for the Visual Arts (FAVA), Kendal at Oberlin, and Oberlin Public Library. 

“It’s important for us to engage with our community, but we can’t do this work without our partners,” President Carmen Twillie Ambar told participants in opening remarks. “We think about leadership in a lot of ways here, but leadership is not just positional. It’s not just because you’re president of your particular organization, or you lead a particular area. Service is leadership at Oberlin.”

Ambar noted that Oberlin students collectively average 115,000 service hours per year, reinforcing the value of student work in the community. By getting infused with a community engagement mindset, Ambar believes Oberlin graduates will go on to bring the change they want to see in the world. 

“I absolutely believe that the world needs more Oberlin graduates,” Ambar said. “There is a way that Oberlin graduates think about the world. They imprint their thinking, and then the world changes for the better.”

At FAVA , students spent the afternoon cleaning, organizing, and discarding unusable supplies in an art classroom—tasks that instructors normally wouldn’t have time to do.

“I think it’s important to get involved when you’re going to be living here for the next four years,” said first-year Althea Ort. “I want to make more connections, not just in Oberlin, but in the surrounding communities.”

At Oberlin Community Services (OCS), a responsive organization that provides direct assistance, referrals, and other services to Oberlin and southern Lorain County residents who need help meeting basic needs, students broke into teams to sift compost for the community garden. The compost would be used for a third round of vegetable plantings that will withstand the first frost, explained OCS lead gardener Holly Whiteside. The garden is full of summer staples and less expected surprises like berries and herbs, even aromatic varieties grown for tea.  

Whiteside said that in the previous week, the garden yielded 65 pounds of fresh produce for the center’s food pantry.

“What you do today is really going to matter,” Whiteside told the volunteers.

Elliot Davey, a first-year from Washington, D.C., was enthusiastic about helping in the garden. Davey was interested in community engagement before coming to Oberlin.

“I thought this day of service and workshop would be a good way of discovering opportunities to get involved.”

Jackie Tafoya, a first-year from Oklahoma, agreed. “I think it’s important to give back to the community that’s giving you so much for the next four years.” 

View our Flickr album for highlights from the Community Engagement Institute.

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