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College Freshmen Volunteer in their Communities


In the United States, volunteering has long been a part of the American way of life. In 2005, roughly a fifth of the U.S. population participated in volunteer activities. More than eight million of those people were between the ages of 18 and 24. VOA's Barry Unger looks at some college students who are volunteering in the Washington area. Crystal Park narrates.

Things are not getting off to a good start for Virginia, a first-year student at American University, on this hot summer day. She is attempting to connect a hose to an outdoor water faucet, and the water is spraying everywhere.

Virginia is one of 10 college students volunteering at Bancroft Elementary School in Washington. After the hose situation is resolved, the volunteers receive some instructions, and are ready to begin working.

They are volunteering here for three days as part of the Freshman Service Experience. More than 520 incoming freshmen at American University volunteered for the program. They perform community service throughout the Washington area, before they even begin taking classes.

Carolyn Phenicie is a sophomore at American University. She participated in the program last year and is a group leader at Bancroft Elementary this year.

"They have a lot of trouble with storm water runoff when it rains. So, we are trying to help them do [fix] that by digging, and putting gravel in some of their tree beds, and then we are going to help with one of the beds by the playground," said Phenicie.

Community volunteer Iris Rothman helped set up the event at Bancroft. The students quickly won her over. "I think they are terrific. Just the fact that, when they found out they would be digging holes in the heat, they did not say, 'Oh my God, no.' I was impressed," said Rothman.

Bancroft Elementary is one of 44 sites participating in the program this year. Students also worked at multi-cultural centers, food banks and a variety of other places.

American University has been running the program for 15 years. Organizers say it provides students with a different type of education. Marcy Fink Campos is the director of A.U.'s Community Service Center.

"Incoming freshmen are going to be spending the next four years of their lives here. And, while their studies are a really important part of that, we want them to know they live in the capital city," said Fink Campos. "They live in a place that has many different concerns, issues and needs like any other urban area. And the best way to learn about that is not in their books, but to go out in the community, and learn what the non-profit sector is doing, what the churches are doing, what is going on in the schools."

Back at Bancroft Elementary, the students are immersed in their work.

Freshman Caitlin Green says the value of community service is something she learned at home.

"I come from an upper-middle class family. But, they have always wanted to make sure I understood how lucky I was to be where I am," said Green. "They always made a point of getting me involved [in the community], because they were themselves and still are."

But not all student volunteers have a choice. The eastern U.S. state of Maryland requires all high school students to engage in community service to graduate. School districts across the country have implemented similar requirements.

The American University students had a mixed reaction to the idea of mandatory community service.

"I know it is mandatory in a lot of schools and people like it. I do not think it is a bad idea. I think schools could do a lot more to promote volunteerism," said freshman Kelly Doffing.

Freshman Zoey Rappaport said the mandatory service may turn off some students. "I think a lot of people see it as an obligation, something they have to do, and not something they enjoy," she said.

Julie Howard is the volunteer coordinator for Greater DC Cares, a volunteer center in the Washington area. She says the mandatory requirements have led to a rise in youth volunteerism.

"We have this whole group of people, who are emerging from high school, who really love volunteering, and have been doing it their entire lives. So, they continue through college. They continue after college. And it is just a great way for them to give back to the community," said Howard.

After spending a day helping teachers organize their classrooms, the students at Bancroft are back outside working. Group leader Carolyn Phenicie is impressed with the freshman students.

"I am really, really proud of the kids. You have these girls that are not that big. They are hoisting around 80 pound bags of concrete, digging holes in trenches, and just getting dirty. I am proud of them," she said.

Phenicie and several other students have professed an interest in continuing their community service at Bancroft Elementary during the school year.