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Community Service Experience is Big Plus for Young US College Applicants - 2003-05-21

Graduating high school students in the United States are making final college plans for next year, while students a year younger are just beginning the application process. For America's more selective colleges, that process involves studying hard, joining in school activities, and for a growing number of students, being an involved citizen as well.

When Peter Gorman began applying to colleges, he had an impressive list of volunteer efforts to include on his application. The Vancouver, Washington student had traveled to Mexico on church missions and spent a summer helping care for orphans at a Romanian hospital.

Most recently he and 11 other young men from his high school took part in a three month fundraiser called the Mr. Hudson's Bay Pageant. The effort ended with a mock beauty contest and the announcement of how much money they'd raised.

"The total for this year's 2003 Mr. Hudson's Bay Pageant is $63,775," announces one of the volunteers.

The twelve contestants earned some $64,000 for Doernbecher Children's Hospital in nearby Portland, Oregon. Peter Gorman collected $4,500 of that total.

"Most of my money came from just meeting with business people and asking them if they'd make a donation of any kind. I got checks for $500, and I got checks for $3," he recalled. "I'd walk around my school community and ask people there for change. And I also sent out letters to family and friends to see if they'd give."

Peter Gorman will attend Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana and was selected at a long list of other colleges as well. While he got good grades and played high school tennis, he thinks his volunteer work played a role in his success.

"Colleges, I think, like to see that you've been involved in your community - and hopefully you'll be in involved in the community at that college," he said.

Academic achievement is still the most important factor in college admissions, says long-time educational consultant John Braunstein, interim dean of admissions at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But Mr. Braunstein says community service can give good students an extra advantage.

"I think there has been over the last couple of decades an increase in interest on the part of colleges and universities in seeing community service," he said. "It distinguishes one high ability student from another. So in that sense it's an interest that adds to the campus that we want to encourage."

And college administrators say that reflects a broader trend, started by students themselves.

"Over the course of the last decade, more and more students have been involved in doing public service in high schools, and sometimes even in junior high schools," explained Barbara Brummett who heads the Ware Institute for Community and Public Service at Franklin and Marshall. "They come to us having done some quite outstanding service. Especially the international students have worked with people who are indigent in their countries. They are fairly knowledgeable about things like poverty and overpopulation and disease control. And many of them have spent a lot of time either with elderly people or with children."

Barbara Brummett also believes today's service-minded students have been influenced by their parents.

"The children we are now educating are the sons and daughters of the 70s generation in America, nicknamed the 'me generation' while they were going through college," she said. "But they've been extremely active in their communities, and they've passed on a love of doing that to their children."

Some high schools are encouraging the trend, by making volunteer work an option, even a requirement, for certain courses. At Bishop Ireton, a private Roman Catholic high school in Alexandria, Virginia, students must complete 30 hours of community service to graduate. Third year student Katie Miller organized a volunteer project at a nearby retirement community to fulfill her requirement. Among other things, she and her fellow students helped residents record their life stories and assemble memory boxes - display cases containing reminders of their past. Katie Miller points to an example:

"This particular resident enjoys quilting, so we've got a number of needles and fabric pieces we can see here, and a couple of thimbles and a pin cushion she probably made herself," she pointed out.

Katie Miller would like to attend Virginia's College of William and Mary, and she hopes her volunteer work will boost her chances of being accepted. But she says she's already benefited from the project in other ways.

"It was very enlightening for us that we could hear a bit of the past," she said. "They loved telling stories, and it was a give and take. They gave us parts of their past and showed us what the future had in store for us. And we gave them their childhood back almost."

Peter Gorman recalls that one of the big rewards of his fundraising work was visiting the children's hospital he helped support.

"We toured the hospital and saw the cancer patients and people who needed heart surgery at two or three years old," she said. "And I really felt good that I knew that I was going to help save their lives."

Both Peter Gorman and Katie Miller say they hope to do more community work in college. Barbara Brummett says it's part of an ongoing process. Students who take part in public service in school tend to become active leaders in their communities after they graduate. And by admitting those students, Barbara Brumett believes colleges are not only getting future community leaders, but a certain kind of person.

"Students who do service have to step outside their comfort zone in order to do it," she said. "One of the things our mission statement talks about is educating students to be citizens, and not just citizens of their communities and countries, but global citizens as well. There's nothing like doing service to have students begin to challenge their own assumptions."

And Barbara Brummett says those are the kinds of students colleges like Franklin and Marshall want to educate.