WVU students do good across Morgantown and West Virginia and gain career skills at the same time.
Games, concerts, free food, and T-shirts—incoming freshmen enjoy lots of welcome-to-college activities. But new students also have opportunities to think beyond campus during Welcome Week.
As part of “Choose Your Adventure” in the four days between move-in and the first day of classes, freshmen can participate in community service projects that plug them into their new community. Last year, about 1,500 freshmen chose to volunteer before school started.
“We try to show them how diverse and engaged our community is,” says Kristi Wood-Turner, who directs the WVU Center for Service and Learning that organizes these opportunities. “These students belong in Morgantown. They’re a part of our community. The university is standing behind that as a concept that shows them we want them here, and here are their support systems.”
Volunteering and learning
The CSL was established in 2006 under the name “Civic Engagement,” but with the same focus it has today: equipping WVU students to help meet the community’s needs. Wood-Turner and other administrators started seeking community organizations and nonprofits in Morgantown and throughout West Virginia that needed student volunteers. “The university understood that our responsibility is not only to our students and staff here but to our community and the state that we have committed to in the land-grant mission,” Wood-Turner says.
CSL’s model has two tracks. One is volunteerism, for students who are excited to give their time and effort to service projects anywhere and anytime—like a group of friends cleaning up a rail-trail over the weekend or hundreds of students volunteering on regularly scheduled days of service. These students typically find their volunteer opportunities on WVU’s service database, iServe, which also tracks their service hours and notifies them when new service opportunities become available.
The other track, academic community engagement, has become so popular across the university that it would be hard for students to miss. This is a more structured volunteer experience in which students exchange their service hours for tangible experience in their fields of study. One form this takes is designated service learning courses where students develop career skills, like marketing, by providing relevant services to a community partner, like a local nonprofit. Community partners essentially serve as co-educators of WVU students while receiving services they might not have the resources to obtain on their own.
The CSL has worked hard over the past several years to formalize ongoing relationships with certain local organizations. These official community partners sign agreements with WVU that express their organizations’ needs and the ways WVU will help—through professional development, for example, or volunteer retention activities, or social media or grant-writing workshops. “We try to enrich those partners so, when our students get there, the experience is what we hope they have,” Wood-Turner says. “In turn, we are training students to be good volunteers, understand why they’re serving, be good stewards of time and be excited.”
It felt natural for Elizabeth Oppe to incorporate community engagement in her courses when she started teaching at WVU eight years ago. A teaching associate professor in the WVU Reed College of Media, Oppe wrote her dissertation at Ohio University on service learning.
Through service learning courses, students become advocates for the nonprofits they’re working for—which is the most important result, according to Oppe, whose parents owned a grocery store and donated food to local athletic groups regularly. “My dad taught me from a young age that you give back to your community wherever you live. That is so important to instill.”
Oppe has been working with the CSL on a new idea called “scaffolding,” where service learning is introduced to freshmen and built upon through new classes each year. Journalism students are exposed to service learning from the beginning in Oppe’s Journalism 101, where they analyze nonprofits’ digital presences. Then, in her public relations writing course, she teaches students how to write news, feature, print, and broadcast press releases for nonprofits. Finally, in the strategic communications capstone class, students plan and execute all aspects of real public relations campaigns for nonprofits, including social media, websites, branding, event planning, writing, and crisis communications plans.
Preparation for life
One of Oppe’s community partners is Mason-Dixon Historical Park, where park superintendent J.R. Petsko welcomes all the help from WVU student volunteers he can get. Over the past two years, Oppe’s strategic communications students have worked to increase awareness of the park in the rural north of Monongalia County. “I grew up 10 minutes away from Mason-Dixon Park and lived there my whole life and had no idea the park existed,” Petsko says. “That’s kind of the way it was for a lot of folks in Monongalia County.” The class helped him get the word out about the park.
Students working with the park, most of whom study advertising and public relations, have successfully started new, well-attended events at the park: summer concerts, crafting workshops for kids, trail walks, ramp dinners. They’ve also revamped recurring events like the park’s annual Easter egg hunt, which normally drew about 200 children but saw more than 500 participate in 2018.
Sydney Corbitt, who graduated from WVU in 2017 with a degree in strategic communications, served as her capstone class project’s account executive, communicating between her classmates and Petsko to determine what was needed next at Mason-Dixon Historical Park.
With Oppe’s guidance, Corbitt’s team planned to set up social media accounts for the park, make public service announcements, and attract news coverage, all leading to an increase in visitors to park events. “I had never done anything like this before,” Corbitt says. “You go from talking about public relations in a classroom to real life situations, and you quickly realize that everything you learn changes drastically when you’re immersed in a different setting. It prepared me for what I would be doing in the real world.”
After college, many students pursue work in the areas where they volunteered. Some even change career paths entirely because of their experience with service. But the end result is the same, says Catherine Whitworth, the CSL’s community partner coordinator: “They graduate not just with dots on their resumes, but with actual stories, and they can articulate specifically what they gained from that experience.”
Service learning integrates students into their communities so they understand the environments where they live and care about where they live, says Oppe. “I’ve found, wherever they move, they have a sense of service. That’s what it’s all about.”
written by Jennifer Skinner
feature photo courtesy of J.R. Petsko