Giving back – Service shapes alumni outcomes

SUNY New Paltz students participate in Alternative Spring Break 2014.
SUNY New Paltz students participate in Alternative Spring Break 2014. The College’s Alternative Spring Break program is designed to give students a chance to give back to the community.

Dedicating time to service builds a strong sense of leadership and ambition that often leaves a lasting impact on those inclined to give back to their communities.

The SUNY New Paltz Career Resource Center is committed to providing students with volunteer and service learning opportunities, allowing alumni to take their appreciation for service with them, long after graduation.

“I think every person volunteers for a different reason, said Erica Wagner ’08g, service learning coordinator for SUNY New Paltz. “I work with hundreds of organizations and pretty much anything you want to do, we can find an organization that does that.”

For recent alumna Deborah Walnicki ’14 (Sociology), participating in community service allowed her to reflect on her course of study and opened her worldview. While working with City Year during the 2009 school year, Walnicki teamed with a diverse group of people to address the student dropout crisis at an elementary school in East Harlem.

“I heard about the program on National Public Radio and it sounded like a perfect fit for my skills and interests,” said Walnicki. “Joining City Year was a unique opportunity that allowed me to combine my interests in non-profit organizations, education, youth mentorship, and community organizing.”

City Year is a nonprofit organization and member of AmeriCorps that connects people of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service, giving them the ability and opportunity to make an everlasting impact as tutors, advisors and role models. Members are paid and receive an educational stipend after they complete their core year.

But according to Wagner, students who get involved are rarely motivated by the educational stipend alone. “They are doing it because this is something they want to do, to give back,” she said.

While City Year is an off-campus service opportunity that the College has facilitated since 2008, there are many other volunteer programs offered through the Career Resource Center, including well-attended programs like Saturdays of Service and Alternative Spring Break.

“These are very popular programs,” said Wagner. “For both, student mentors are selected from past participants who plan the entire program, with me, based on their own experience with the program.”

Saturdays of Service is grounded around a specific service-related theme, whether it is hunger, sustainable agriculture or environmental sustainability. Alternative Spring Break is a more diverse program that touches on a range of volunteering options, from working with sheltered animals, children in need, to community farming.

“It’s intensive, a lot of work, very long days,” Wagner. “But these are students who have gotten involved because they want to make a difference and they want to put in the time.”

For Emily Jerez ’13 (Education), taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the College allowed her to participate in a multitude of programs, including Alternative Spring Break and City Year, both eventually transforming her life since graduation.

“After serving with the Alternative Spring Break crew my senior year, I was interested in holding off on grad school and a career in order to spend a year serving the community,” said Jerez. “A year turned into two, and now I’m serving as Team Leader here in Detroit for City Year.”

Walnicki also credits her service experience with shaping her life, even impacting her chosen course of study.

“I chose to pursue sociology and human services, which proved to be a fascinating combination of studying macro-level social justice issues and working one-on-one with individuals within social service systems,” said Walnicki. “These eye-opening experiences, combined with my passion of working with youth, have led me to pursue a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant in Malaysia, which I will begin in January 2015.”

Regardless of the course of action – knowledge, time, and energy are powerful resources in the New Paltz community that have a lasting influence on alumni. Those impacted by service are both the recipients and the volunteers themselves, like Walnicki and Jerez.

“I think it’s really helpful to alumni for networking purposes,” said Wagner. “When you say City Year or AmeriCorps, people know the name and the good work that’s being done.”