Half a century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed the notion that everybody could achieve greatness through service.
Every day, students at The University of Texas at El Paso are investing in their community by taking part in the many service learning and community engagement opportunities the University has to offer.
Last year, UTEP students contributed more than 1.5 million hours of service, a 36 percent increase from the year before. These hours include academic service learning performed by 7,863 students and additional community service performed by 9,888 students.
Azuri Gonzalez, director of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) at UTEP, emphasized that community engagement goes beyond just hitting the streets to pick up trash or helping out at the local food pantry. While UTEP students do not shy away from such tasks, engagement at UTEP is much more dynamic.
“Community engagement at UTEP is purposeful and very carefully designed and structured to be reciprocal with our community partners so that we are tackling community needs,” Gonzalez said. “The form this typically takes is what we refer to as academic-based community engagement, or service learning.”
Service learning includes many of the high-impact practices incorporated in the UTEP Edge, such as research and scholarly activity, community engagement, internships and capstone experiences. Out of the 1.5 million hours of service UTEP students performed in 2016-17, 78 percent stemmed from service learning. The University also offers 386 service learning courses per year in different disciplines.
Mark Lusk, Ed.D., professor of social work and faculty fellow for civic engagement, believes service learning is second only to study abroad as the most transformational experience an undergraduate student can have. Whereas studying abroad takes students off campus and exposes them to another culture, service learning exposes them to a world where what they learn in the classroom becomes a reality and changes things for clients, partners and community agencies.
“Through service learning, you’re engaged in a public enterprise, and as a state university, your campus walls disappear in the sense that you’re community-based as opposed to campus-based,” Lusk said. “This spread is transformative, and the impact is not only on the students but also on the community.”
UTEP senior graphic design major Gabriel Garcia is one of the many students serving the community as he earns his degree. During his sophomore year, he began working at UTEP’s Center for Civic Engagement, where part of his job was to help students get involved in community engagement activities. Garcia was soon motivated to serve as well. After volunteering at several community organizations, he found a place that he immediately knew was the right fit for him.
Every Saturday, the aspiring graphic designer spent his morning teaching and mentoring young students at Creative Kids, a nonprofit educational community-based art agency located in downtown El Paso that uses the visual arts to empower children. The experience was transformational for Garcia.
“I had never thought of volunteering before working for the CCE, which makes me sad because volunteering for Creative Kids ended up being an experience that helped mold me into who I am,” Garcia said. “Being able to teach graphic design to the kids was a rewarding experience for me, and to see the quality of work they produced left a lasting impression. I wish I would have started volunteering earlier.”
Karla Martinez has always had the heart for serving others. Her parents encouraged their children to give back to the community. The UTEP senior applied mathematics major has served at several community organizations and her church since an early age. At UTEP, she took her volunteering efforts to the next level and participated in a service learning and research opportunity that impacted her personally, academically and professionally.
Martinez conducted research with Amy Wagler, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematical sciences and faculty fellow for civic engagement, through her statistics class. She also volunteered at The Frontera Land Alliance (TFLA) to analyze whether the proximity to an open space (Franklin Mountains) affects house prices in the northwest part of El Paso.
“In an academic scope, conducting research and working with the TFLA, Dr. Amy Wagler and my peers gave me an insight on statistical analysis and research methods and the possible ways to actively engage in community issues,” Martinez said. “The research I did taught me how to apply the knowledge learned in academia to community-related issues. Professionally, it gave me work experience in statistics related areas and data analysis. On a personal level, it allowed me to grow as an individual and become more socially aware of some of the needs of our community. This project was challenging and rewarding.”
For students who are interested in serving, Gonzalez suggests that community engagement is a great stepping stone. Through community engagement, students realize that there are community needs and that they can do something about them.
Project MOVE (Miner Opportunities for Volunteer Experiences) is UTEP’s annual day of volunteer service. The event draws thousands of Miners to assist various nonprofit organizations in a wide range of jobs and is an opportunity for students to get a feel for community engagement.
“Students often start out serving the community with their hands but down the line with their intellectual abilities and newly learned skills,” Gonzalez said. “Project MOVE is a great way for students to gain initial awareness, and from there they are encouraged to take part in service learning opportunities and then community-based internships and capstone experiences.”
Whether they participate in Project MOVE, community-based research, or one of the many service learning opportunities, UTEP students have not missed a beat in their eagerness and willingness to serve their community. For Gonzalez, the increase in service hours by students means community engagement has become more widely recognized as a core value throughout campus, and the opportunities for students to get engaged with the community continue to grow.
Hitting the 1.5 million mark not only has an impact on the community and the University but also the students who have helped make their community a better place.
“It is exciting, and I feel proud and empowered to have been part of these collective hours of community service through the University,” Martinez said. “Our community needs all the help it can get, and it is our responsibility to provide aid to one another and positively contribute to society.”
Author: Christina Rodriguez – UTEP Communications