On a late August day, Mary Washington first-years were scattered throughout Fredericksburg, mulching gardens, planting trees and cleaning up along the Rappahannock River. Others cared for animals at the SPCA and worked on projects to help area seniors, sexual assault survivors and deployed service members.
These efforts were made possible by UMW’s new Center for Community Engagement (CCE), which officially launches today. Housed in the University Center, it will build bridges – and strengthen existing ones – between Mary Washington and the greater Fredericksburg area, showcase civic and community engagement opportunities and foster partnerships that enhance student learning and encourage positive social change. The Center fits into a larger national movement to make community engagement a top priority in higher education institutions.
“At UMW, we have a tradition of working in and with our communities,” said Sarah Dewees, CCE’s associate director, who organized last month’s Day of Service, part of a four-day orientation for Mary Washington first-years. She said the Center provides an infrastructure to support, promote and enhance the service and volunteerism already being done by students and employees. It will also assist faculty who have long incorporated community engagement into their teaching and research, and those who wish to start.
“We’re lucky to have James Farmer’s legacy here,” Dewees said of the late Mary Washington professor and civil rights icon who inspired the creation of COAR – Community Outreach and Resources – the student-run organization adopted by CCE. “He taught us that social justice includes both organizing and good works.”
The Center’s Sept. 9 launch features a talk at 4 p.m. in the UC’s Chandler Ballroom by Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact, which supports universities in working with community partners and ensuring that civic and social responsibility is a part of their curriculum. UMW recently created a civic action plan, dovetailing with President Troy Paino’s strategic vision, in which he encouraged the University to promote the value of service and community engagement.
With Virginia’s upcoming elections, the Center will host a National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 24. The Ball Circle event will have a carnival-like atmosphere, with food, music, games and voter registration booths. College Republicans, Young Democrats and the recently established UMW chapter of the NAACP will offer guidance to students on getting politically involved.
“Becoming an engaged citizen in modern society requires understanding how to participate in the political process and civic life,” said Dewees, noting that 2016 UMW student voter turnout was higher than the national average. “We’ll not only register students, but teach them the nuts and bolts of how to vote, which is tricky on a campus served by three different polling places.”
Popular COAR activities like Into the Streets, Pumpkinpalooza and Good Neighbor Day will anchor the program schedule. New initiatives will also be introduced, including monthly Fred Chats with community partners, a learning cohort for faculty who want to integrate community engagement in their classrooms and collaborations with the James Farmer Multicultural Center and other campus entities. An electronic board on the Center’s website displays volunteer opportunities, and Leslie Martin, CCE’s faculty director, sends a monthly opt-in email specifically for faculty and staff opportunities.
The Center also helped open the Eagle Resource Closet, a food pantry on the fifth floor of Lee Hall. “A group of Mary Washington employees worked for over a year to make this happen,” Martin said. Volunteers will monitor the closet, but it won’t be staffed out of respect for privacy.
Several students who participated in the Day of Service said they chose Mary Washington because of its commitment to community engagement, while others discovered it when they arrived on campus. “Once I learned how important service is here, I realized how much I liked it,” said Adam Wartel ’23, who made toys for dogs in shelters. “Volunteering is something everyone should do.”
Sophomore Kayla Estes served as a Day of Service leader last month to encourage first-years to embrace the spirit of service and get involved in CCE activities.
“It’s a great opportunity to get immersed into the culture on campus and in Fredericksburg,” Estes said. “It’s a lot of fun and you can make connections with others who are just as passionate as you.”