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Celebrating the Dynamic Embrace of Service and Learning

In October, Niagara’s Learn and Serve Niagara program celebrated a milestone no one originally expected — its 20th anniversary.

“We thought we’d be lucky if we made it through the first three years of our original grant,” recalls Dr. Marilynn Fleckenstein, the program’s founding director.

That was in 1994. Fast-forward to 2014. The flagship service-learning program has become a permanent fixture on the NU campus and has been recognized by the President’s Honor Roll for Community Service, the Carnegie Foundation, and national publications for the positive impact it has had on the City of Niagara Falls and its environs. Courses with service-learning components are offered in every college and in almost every academic department, engaging students in a wide range of projects that improve lives and strengthen the local community.

Of course, Niagara University has a longstanding tradition of community service, rooted in the very mission of the university and inspired by the work begun by its patron, St. Vincent de Paul. In 1965, the launch of the Niagara University Community Action Program formalized the involvement of students in community service projects. Nearly 30 years later, a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service enabled the university to expand its efforts by establishing Learn and Serve Niagara. NUCAP served as an integral partner to Learn and Serve and eventually became part of the program.

In the early days of Learn and Serve, the focus was on two projects: a tutoring program in collaboration with Niagara County Community College, and a health assessment project at the Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club. Since then, projects as diverse as developing a video series on domestic violence prevention that was used by the District Attorney’s Office, to organizing records at the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, N.Y., to performing mental health work at the Behavioral Health Unit at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, have been completed by Learn and Serve students.

What makes these activities different from other community service endeavors, what makes them Learn and Serve, is the emphasis on academics, Fleckenstein notes. “The idea was that this service component actually became part of the learning experience within the course,” she explains. “We used the service experience as a vehicle to learn the course material first and foremost, so that students could understand how they could use what they learned in the classroom for a practical purpose.”

Reflection after the activity is also a critical piece of the Learn and Serve experience, and again is inspired by St. Vincent, who viewed action and contemplation as inseparable.

“It’s not enough for the students just to do the service,” Fleckenstein says. “It is important that they think about what it means, what effect it has on them in particular and on the community, and to understand why they’re doing it.”

This reflection often leads the students to take an even larger role in the lives of those they serve. For instance, one student accompanied a mother to see her child’s teacher because she was afraid of walking into the school by herself. Another took someone to the bank to help him open a bank account.

Over the past 20 years, Learn and Serve’s impact on the community has been significant, and partnerships with agencies in areas such as aging, animals, children, the environment/outdoors, healthcare, law enforcement, government, politics, special events, business, and sports are now thriving. More than 80 percent of the student body participates in service-learning projects, dedicating 1,000 hours each week during the academic year.

But perhaps the most significant change comes from within the students themselves.

“The greatest joy is watching somebody become invested in the community,” says Fran Boltz, director of Learn and Serve. “And then they realize they can do that for the rest of their lives. They’re not limited to a four-year period.”

This was exactly the experience Ashley Serwon, ’11, M.S.Ed.’13, had as a Learn and Serve student. Now a campus minister at NU, Ashley credits the program with leading her to this position because it gave her an opportunity to put into practice the Vincentian values she learned in the classroom.

“Service through Learn and Serve allowed me to connect with peers, faculty and staff, and community members on a deeper level, while we all walked in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul,” she says. “My experiences allowed me to step out of my comfort zone, try new things, serve my brothers and sisters on the margins of society, and ultimately see the face of Christ in each person I encountered. The blessings I have received from Learn and Serve are exponential, and have helped me to continue to live out my Vincentian heritage and to understand and be the person God has called (and is still calling) me to be.”

 

As part of the Learn and Serve anniversary celebration, six university employees, alumni, and partners who have demonstrated a commitment to lifelong engagement in the pursuit of social justice were recognized. Honorees included Dr. Marilynn Fleckenstein, founding director of Learn and Serve (pictured here with the Rev. James Maher, C.M., NU’s president); Osman Kabia, ’99, founder of S.H.A.R.E., a program that endeavors to foster sustainable and holistic advances in rural education in Kabia’s home country of Sierra Leone; Evelyn Hope Nowak, a longtime cook and volunteer for Meals on Wheels of Niagara Falls; the late Carol L. Murphy, proprietor of Murphy Orchards in Burt, N.Y., who volunteered with the Underground Railroad Commission and the Western New York Service Learning Coalition’s Faculty Fellows training; and the Niagara Falls City School District and the Francis Center, community partners of the Learn and Serve program.