Governors State University takes community service to the next level

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A GSU student fills a bowl wtih food for the animals while volunteering at Riegel Farm in University Park in January during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

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Governors State University has long held as part of its mission the intent to promote social and economic development in the community it serves. By making resources available to area residents, offering service opportunities to students and partnering with local organizations, the university sees itself as a “public square” open to everyone, according to Aurelio Valente, dean of students and vice president of academic affairs.

Now, the university is working to make its civic involvement official by applying for a community engagement classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The community engagement classification is “an evidence-based documentation of institutional practice to be used in a process of self-assessment and quality improvement,” according to the Carnegie Foundation’s website. Application is a rigorous, time-consuming process and requires providing proof of the university’s community involvement; Valente likens it to applying for accreditation. Community engagement classification status will be helpful when GSU applies for grants, for example, because it indicates that a university has been vetted by an outside organization, he said.

Institutions applying for the classification began the application process last summer and have until next month to complete it. The review process will be complete in December, and classification for those institutions that have achieved it will go into effect in 2015.

Even going through the application process is bringing benefits, Valente said, as it serves as an opportunity for university stakeholders to get together and talk about what they do for the community, how and why.

“It’s a really affirming process for us,” he said. “It gives us a sense of purpose that’s very focused.”

Applying for the classification is an involved process, but for a university that already integrates itself so strongly in its community, it makes sense, Valente said. The university already is involved in many activities that will improve its chances of achieving the classification.

From allowing the public to access on-campus resources such as the library to conducting research that directly benefits the community, GSU offers many benefits to the surrounding area and its residents.

One example is the Illinois Small Business Development Center on the university’s campus. A collaboration between the university, the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity and the U.S. Small Business Administration, the center offers training and resources for area business owners to help grow. Area residents can also benefit from the university’s Career Services center and even counseling services offered through the campus Department of Counseling.

But the university’s community engagement goes far beyond campus borders, Valente said. This year, the university opened the Civic Engagement & Community Service Center, which serves to provide service opportunities for students, civic engagement activities for faculty who wish to incorporate it into their classes, and a ready population of volunteers for local organizations. The center also maintains a blog that chronicles its activities (civicengagementblog.wordpress.com), where photos and stories about volunteerism are posted.

In January, for example, the university celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday “as a day on…not a day off,” the blog reads. The day was treated as a service holiday where 137 participating students were given the opportunity to volunteer at one of four locations: the YWCA in Chicago, where volunteers built a playroom; Riegel Farm in University Park, where volunteers helped perform farm chores; Benton House in Chicago, where they helped archive work and set up a free library; and a VFW post, where volunteers helped paint the great hall.

The university also held a day of service on Sept. 11 of last year and planned to engage in volunteerism efforts over spring break, Valente said.

But community outreach is just one piece of the puzzle for the university, according to Valente. GSU has as much to gain from civic engagement as residents of the surrounding area, because the populations are one and the same, he said.

Because it attracts so many non-traditional students, commuters in their upper 20s and low 30s, the university has a different view of its community than a school whose students enter at 18 and graduate at 21, coming from the far reaches of the state and living on campus the entire time, Valente said. Community service for the latter type of university usually means that students are reaching out to residents of the surrounding area, but at GSU, the service is reciprocal.

For example, many GSU students are single parents and heads of households. Therefore, something like a food pantry located on campus to benefit students allows GSU to serve residents of the area as well as the campus population.

“When we’re helping our students, we’re helping our community,” he said.

The university’s location also plays a large part. GSU is near public transportation, which allows students to benefit from opportunities in Chicago, and the proximity to communities that could benefit from student involvement have resulted in some fruitful partnerships, Valente said. The university has long worked with the YWCA in Chicago Heights, and GSU students regularly visit middle schools in Chicago Heights to help students with homework.