By Michelle Ma, Originally Published in the Union Bulletin on February 7, 2015
Every year and often under the radar, more than 1,000 Whitman students volunteer in Walla Walla. It’s the college’s Student Engagement Center that brings them — the students and dozens of local schools, community groups and nonprofits — together.
Community service isn’t required for a Whitman diploma; regardless, students have made it an important part of the Whitman College experience. More than 70 percent of the student population participates annually in community service, and that service pays dividends to the student participants and the community.
Alumna Kenna Little remembers her volunteer work as a source of “best friends, hilarious memories, new skills, and a deeper awareness of my role as a global citizen.”
A 2013 graduate, Little worked to connect other students to volunteer roles within the community as a community service intern at the college.
Through the work of 11 community service interns like Little, and under the supervision of staff members Susan Prudente and Abby Juhasz, Whitman students invested 11,089 hours in service outreach projects during the 2013-2014 school year.
An online calculator at independentsector.org is used to translate those hours into a “donation value” for tax reporting purposes. Punch in that time figure and you get $296,298 in value to the Walla Walla community.
So what compels 320 students a week to get out and volunteer, even when they don’t have to?
Juhasz says, “All of this service is done because students view themselves as global citizens who have a desire to engage in their community, tackle difficult social justice issues, and meet unmet needs in the community.”
The college offers many options for students to volunteer, ranging from work at a one-time event to committing as a regular volunteer for an established weekly service program like Whitman’s Buddy Program.
Since 2010, the Buddy Program has been connecting Whitman students with intellectually- and developmentally-disabled adults in the Walla Walla community. In this program, Whitman students meet with their community buddies twice a month on Friday afternoons to take part in a variety of organized activities, including dances, movie nights, arts-and-crafts projects, bowling and more.
Through these structured interactions, in addition to student-initiated interactions, Whitman students are able to form meaningful one-to-one relationships with their buddies.
“The 28 Walla Walla buddies who are a part of our program have taught me so much more than I have learned in a classroom,” reflected Michaela Lambert ’14, student founder and leader of the Buddy Program. “These buddies have taught me to not be afraid to laugh at myself when I make mistakes, which I do quite often. They’ve pushed me to value and appreciate the small joys in life, no matter how trivial.”
A meaningful experience — like the one Lambert describes — is what Whitman’s Student Engagement Center strives for.
It’s about “sharing their talents, exploring their interests, responding to community needs and become active citizens,” says Juhasz. “But it’s also about the community teaching them.”
Besides the Buddy Program, the college offers five additional weekly service programs. Students can sign up to serve as mentors to elementary school students, visit senior residents at Odd Fellows, provide tutoring and support to local high school students, support early literacy efforts within the community, or provide classroom support to bilingual classes at Walla Walla’s elementary schools.
Laura Neff, a senior who will graduate from Whitman in May, serves as an America Reads America Counts intern at Blue Ridge Elementary. She hopes to become an elementary school teacher one day and finds tremendous value in seeing bilingual education in action.
At the same time, the classroom benefits from an additional adult being on-site, working with and supporting the teacher.
As these existing partnerships grow over time, the college hopes they will spur new ideas and relationships and lead to new opportunities for Whitman College students and for the community.
“With 400 or so new students coming to Whitman every year, we’ll never run out of volunteers,” says Juhasz. “Thankfully, our community keeps coming up with great ideas and opportunities to match that demand.”
Michelle Ma joined Whitman College in 2014 to lead the college’s communications and public relations efforts as chief communications officer. She can be reached at email@example.com or via phone at 509-527-5768.