Published June 19, 2014
A course that aims to impart life skills to undergraduates in the end helped students learn what just may be the most important life skill of them all: helping those in need.
The objective of “Freshman Experience Seminar (CPM 101), a course offered during the fall semester by UB’s Cora P. Maloney College, is to assist first-semester freshmen in making the transition from high school to college. The instructors for the course’s three sections offered in fall 2012—Kirkshinta Turnipseed, Ramelli Choates and Sarah Piraino—met last summer to develop a topic for the class that tied into the coming fall semester’s UB Reads book: “Start Something that Matters,” by social entrepreneur and TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie.
The aim was to do something different with the class, noted Piraino. “Our instructors have attended the WNY Service Learning Faculty Fellows training program, and research projects have identified a strong correlation between students’ engagement in community service and academic success.” she explained.
So the instructors decided to feature a semester-long community service project as part of the class.
The beneficiary would be Gerard Place, a 14-unit transitional shelter for homeless, single-parent families.
“We saw (working with Gerard Place) as a great way to incorporate our project this year through the overarching theme of the UB Reads book ‘Start Something that Matters.’ It seemed to be a natural fit for our class this year,” she added.
In keeping with the “Starting something that matters” theme, the instructors narrowed the focus to “homelessness and its impact on youth.”
“We felt that it was a topic that our students could become passionate about while adjusting to college and really make a difference in the community,” Piraino said.
Over the course of the semester, the 30 students in the class worked in groups to come up with creative ways to gather items for the residents of Gerard Place. They collected pop bottles, created Facebook campaigns, visited community members, wrote letters seeking donations, and held drives at their parents’ places of employment in an effort to support the project.
Piraino said her original expectations had been that by the end of the semester the students would have gained a foundational knowledge of community service and engagement.
“I had not anticipated the overwhelming student response to this project,” she admitted. “I was moved beyond words to see that a group of first-semester freshmen students could be so proactive in their approach and do so much for this organization.
“At the end of the project, several of them approached me asking what more they could do for this agency in terms of volunteer projects,” she said. “They truly expressed a deep concern and interest in this agency and wanted to do more, to learn more and to help more.”
Piraino noted that by the end of the project, students were able to fill a van with toys, clothing, books, toiletries and even gift cards for the residents.
The students’ dedication “truly made a difference in the community,” she said.
“[This project] could help them to better acclimate to university life by assisting them in several key areas of academic and personal growth and development,” Piraino said. “Through their work in the community, our students were able to think outside of themselves and tie in their academic experiences to real-life situations.”
Throughout the semester, students were encouraged to journal about the project and reflect on their experiences and what they had learned. Those journal entries were genuine and passionate, Piraino pointed out.
“Not only was I impressed with their service, it was their reaction responses when reading their journals at the end of the semester that truly enlightened me as to the impact that the project had on the students’ perspectives,” Piraino said.
For example, one student wrote: “It’s important to remember how easy it can be to make a difference in someone else’s life; this project helps us to remember how fortunate we are and how much we can help.”
“It saddens me to see people who have nothing,” another student wrote. “I think everybody at some point in their lives should give back to people who aren’t as fortunate.”
Piraino said the students “were truly impacted by their experience with this class project,” noting that several had sought out volunteer and service projects related to this topic on their own, a couple had requested their parents donate their allotted Christmas monies to a charity of their choice in lieu of presents, and many of them had sought the resources and help of their families, friends and community connections in order to better help Gerard Place.
“I was so very proud of my students!” she said. “They exceeded my class expectations by far; their dedication and hard work will not be forgotten.”