Residents wanted: Must love service!

Civic-focused learning community gives new meaning to the phrase “I’m going downtown.”

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Jordan Musante, left, Lisbeth Pereyra and Arthur Seltenreich prepare food for residents at Whitney Place, a supportive residence for homeless men operated by the nonprofit organization Rescue Mission.

When Brian Barrett visited the Nature Preserve last fall, he walked around collecting discarded wrappers, bottles and other litter — and he had a blast doing it.

But Barrett wasn’t the only one having a good time; he was working with fellow residents of the Public Service Learning Community.

“Every time we found a piece of trash, we would yell ‘service!’ to encourage pride in doing a good deed,” says Barrett, resident assistant in the Public Service Learning Community. “It was fun to feel part of a group that took pride in cleaning up the woods.”

While they did a bang-up job beautifying the Nature Preserve, members of the Public Service Learning Community are no ordinary cleanup crew; they belong to a new learning community committed to service in Greater Binghamton, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) and Hinman College.

What does it mean to participate in community life? What does it mean to be an active citizen? For David Campbell, chair and associate professor of public administration, the Public Service Learning Community helps students tackle these questions and become more engaged in society.

“I really believe that one of the primary goals of an undergraduate education is to prepare students for careers of active citizenship,” Campbell says. “To me, that means helping them to think about what it means to be an active citizen. The Public Service Learning Community provides the opportunity for us to think through those questions collaboratively and bring resources from CCPA to Hinman to advance these goals.”

Launched in fall 2013, the Public Service Learning Community gives about 50 students the opportunity to live, take courses and interact with others who want to make a difference locally. They are encouraged to be leaders and to think of themselves as pioneers in developing programs on civic engagement and public service. Any student at Binghamton University can be part of the community as long as he or she is committed to public service.

Living together on two floors in Hughes Hall provides these civic-minded freshmen and sophomores the support they need to act, says Al Vos, the Hinman faculty master who conceived the idea of launching a learning community.

“The Public Service Learning Community is a mutually supportive group of students who have a shared commitment to service,” Vos says. “That idea of mutual support is important. Students can act in isolation, but there’s strength in community.”

Creating a culture of public service

If you know anything about Hinman, you’ll find it no coincidence that the Public Service Learning Community put down its roots here; Hinman has a reputation for being one of the most tight-knit residential areas on campus (some even call it a family). For Vos, the Public Service Learning Community was the perfect offshoot of the already service-focused Hinman.

“It builds on who we are, on the Hinman culture and spirit,” says Vos, who teaches a course at Hinman titled Practicum in Leadership and Community Service. “It’s a spirit captured in two words: leadership and service.”

So when Vos approached Campbell with the idea of launching a learning community in Hinman, it was a no-brainer.

“I loved the idea because we have been looking for ways to make the larger community of Binghamton University aware of what we do at CCPA, and we want to elevate the importance of public service in the lives of our students,” says Campbell. “Al has created a culture at Hinman that already embraces public service. The Public Service Learning Community simply elevates that.”

To expand on that culture of public service, former CCPA Dean Patricia Ingraham asked Campbell to create a course to use as a foundation for this new CCPA-Hinman relationship. The course, titled Foundations of Civic Engagement, was designed to get students thinking more actively about service. Students are required to do 30 hours of service as well as reflect on their experiences via blog posts.

In addition to the course, Campbell, Vos and the Center for Civic Engagement have co-sponsored forums to further fuel student interest in public service, Campbell says.

“If our goal is to prepare students for lives of active citizenship, then we really have to talk about what civic engagement is and how students can sort through what it means to have a life of active citizenship,” he says.

Helping others, building character

The children at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School were smiling wide on March 21. After all, students from the Public Service Learning Community had just delivered a bunch of cool new books, such as Wonderful World of Nature and Phineas & Ferb: Ride the Voter Coaster.

For Barrett, experiences like these give residents of the Public Service Learning Community an opportunity to grow as individuals.

“These experiences give students a strong base in service and really help to build character so that they feel confident in making a difference in the world,” Barrett says.

Residents are required to engage in a number of service projects throughout the year, focusing on issues such as the environment, youth education, health and poverty.

By getting students engaged in meaningful local projects in their early years of college, Vos hopes to put a new spin on the phrase “I’m going downtown.”

“We’re trying to give new understanding for what it means to be living in Binghamton,” Vos says. “I think the Public Service Learning Community is a way to bring students together who are open to that mission.”

One student open to that mission is Amber Decker. As a coordinator for Motivational Mondays, she puts on biweekly events designed to inspire residents. Decker takes her role seriously – public service, after all, is a life-changing endeavor.

“Participating in public service gives you opportunities to learn so many invaluable lessons,” Decker says. “It allows you to learn about others and, also, yourself.”

Lisbeth Pereyra, a teaching assistant within the master of public administration program, oversees Decker and other coordinators in the Public Service Learning Community and makes sure residents follow through with their own service projects. She pushes residents to embrace the Binghamton area no matter how long they’re in town.

“While you’re here, even if it’s just for four years, you are part of the larger community,” Pereyra says. “You should be aware of the needs and resources and how you can help.”

With stress from schoolwork, personal issues and interactions with other residents, finding the inspiration to help the larger community can be difficult for even the most civic-minded student. That’s where Barrett and fellow resident assistant Ilana Solomon come in.

“I am a helping hand when needed,” Barrett says. “I provide encouragement to jumpstart their motivation so they can accomplish what they never thought was possible.”

Gaining momentum

You’ll soon hear more inspired shouts of “service!” in Binghamton. Thanks to a successful first-year run, the Public Service Learning Community will be back for the 2014-15 school year with even more programming and student requirements.

According to Vos, the Public Service Learning Community has aligned well with the culture of Hinman.

“Hinman is a family community,” Vos says. “And the Public Service Learning Community is a subset of that. It’s almost magical, the way the students energize each other.”

Solomon, who has had “life-changing experiences” as a Hinman resident, thinks the Public Service Learning Community will overcome its first-year missteps.

“There have been some bumps along the road, and it has definitely been a learning experience, but I believe overall it has been a success and is something that will continue to grow stronger, bigger and better every year,” Solomon says.

Campbell, who says that the Public Service Learning Community “has gotten some real momentum,” has faith in its residents, who are already seeking out answers to vital questions about civic engagement.

“Students who live in the Public Service Learning Community are thinking more deeply about questions of civic participation, how they make a difference, what works and what doesn’t,” Campbell says.

That’s true for Barrett, who’s also been thinking deeply about the potential of the Public Service Learning Community itself.

“Being at college is all about growing up, making friends and building relationships,” Barrett says. “You can do all of that and make a difference in the world through the Public Service Learning Community. It’s a commitment to personal growth while caring for others and the world around us.”

Take a trip to the Nature Preserve and you’ll see what that type of commitment can accomplish.