Oberlin College’s Day of Service has demonstrated its commitment to community engagement for more than two decades.
Oberlin College's Day of Service, which is sponsored by the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, began in 1996 and is in its 22nd year. The daylong event is an opportunity for the Oberlin College community to engage in service work within surrounding Lorain County. Although the event culminates in the afternoon, the introduction students receive to their new community often becomes the impetus for their continued service engagement long after the event ends.
Day of Service Coordinator Emily Peterson ’19 says that the event is ultimately about providing context for incoming first-years and new students. “Something that the Day of Service tries to emphasize is the importance of having context about the community where you will be completing service. When students move to Oberlin, they become residents of a small town—a place where they will interact with community members and vote in local elections—doing this work during Day of Service with community partners is a great way for students to gain context for their educational home here,” she says.
The Oberlin College Center for Service and Learning was founded within the year following President Nancy Dye’s induction in 1994, whose push for increased community outreach efforts led to the launch of the first Day of Service. The Bonner Scholars Program, which was established by the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation in 1990 at Berea College, launched its Oberlin chapter in 1992. With the help of the Bonner Endowment of $4.5 million in 2007, the college has put its generous support from the Bonner Foundation to good use, placing its scholars at the forefront of Day of Service each year.
In 2006, Day of Service volunteers served 21 sites in Lorain, Erie, and Huron counties. In 2018, the number of service sites was just shy of this figure. While volunteers benefit by feeling as if they’re making a difference in their immediate community, community partners receive support at a critical transitional point in the year. Peterson says, “The end of summer is usually a time of regrouping for community partners, so many of them really appreciate the help in getting ready for fall, whether it’s cleaning shelves and changing displays at the Oberlin Public Library or doing garden maintenance at Oberlin Community Services.”
First-year Bonner Scholar and site leader at the Oberlin Public Library Iesha Phillips says that taking the lead as a first-year was a memorable experience. “My group was mostly first-year students, so I thought it was pretty interesting that the other students asked for my advice,” she says.
Bel Moreno, also a first-year student and Bonner Scholar, says that volunteering during Day of Service allowed her to reflect on the experience she hopes to gain through the Bonner program. “I’m very interested in volunteering at El Centro, because I’m passionate about immigrant rights. As a child, I had to go through ESL classes and I actually helped my mom with the citizenship process by quizzing her and helping her study for the citizenship test,’’ she says. “I know I’ve barely started college, but I’m excited to do the things I am passionate about and learn how I can do them for a living.”
Phillips echoes Moreno’s eagerness to integrate her Bonner experience with her goals for the future. “As a Bonner scholar, I hope to learn more about how to use my passions to make a difference for underserved and underrepresented communities,” Phillips says.
Day of Service’s history speaks volumes to Oberlin’s ongoing commitment to giving back to the local community. While town-gown relations are often at the forefront of conversations about the Oberlin community as a whole, the college has recently made strides to foster dialogue between campus and community members. This year’s New Student Orientation included a panel discussion titled “Community 101: An Obie’s Guide to Being a Good Neighbor,” which featured Oberlin Chief Prosecutor and Assistant Law Director Farah L. Emeka ’97, Police Chief Ryan Warfield, and City Manager Rob Hilliard.
Day of Service 2017 brought together more than 200 Oberlin College students and staff who collectively contributed 400 total service hours in Oberlin and Lorain County combined. This summer’s event featured 16 service sites, including a renewed visit to the Lorain County Urban League, which was a Day of Service site more than a decade ago.
Peterson says, “Oberlin is a great place to do community-based service and learning because of its size. I’ve learned just how many connections there are between the college and community and between community partners themselves. I think that is only possible in a tight-knit community like Oberlin.”