Two hundred fifteen students have pledged their commitments to improving the greater Richmond community by volunteering through the Center for Civic Engagement.

Richmond students build mutually beneficial relationships with the community through long-term volunteer programs, Sylvia Gale said. Gale, the associate director for the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), said she was proud of how many opportunities were available for students to connect with the community.

In order to create these relationships, the CCE staff works to give partner organizations students who are ready to commit to a program from the beginning to the end of the semester, she said.

Some students, like Bonner Scholar Alisha Cerel, are committed to a program long before the deadline. One hundred students are members of the Bonner Scholars Program, which requires 10 hours of service per week for all four years of college, Cerel said.

She said she chose William Byrd Community House, which provides services for inner-city neighborhoods, as her primary site. Cerel said: "You belong to them. Through the good times and bad times, you're at that site."

She said freshman Bonners spent their fall semester exploring sites before they chose their primary site for the rest of college. After the first year, most Bonners developed more involved roles at their sites, and many ended up working in the administration of their organization, Cerel said.

Cerel said she did not have trouble balancing her social life and academics with her volunteer schedule. "I think it's what keeps me sane," she said, "because you get so caught up in Richmond and all these stressful situations that, in reality, aren't super important. Then you go off campus and see the larger social issues and you're like, 'OK, if they can deal with this, I can deal with my test tomorrow.'"

Another Bonner Scholar, sophomore Blair Curcie, said service could sometimes seem tedious or too small-scale to make a difference. But she said,

"Every bit of the service and every day that you spend with this organization can be the way that social justice issues are resolved and that community is really lifted back up."

Bonner Scholars are not the only ones trying to make a difference. Gale said: "There are a hundred Bonner Scholars. Period. There are hundreds of UR students volunteering."

"Other students can connect with community organizations through community-based learning classes."

One community-based learning class is Children's and Young Adult Literature, which is taught by English professor Elisabeth Gruner. Gruner said before classes started, she had emailed the students enrolled in the class that they were required to devote 10 to 15 hours to community service during the semester.

The main sites for her students are Overby-Sheppard Elementary School and the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, where they read aloud to children, Gruner said.

She said several of her students from previous years continued with the programs even after the semester ended, but that was not her central ambition.

"My goal for them is to think critically about who the audience is for children's books," she said.

Gruner also said she wanted her students to connect with a different age group and learning environment because on a college campus it was easy to forget that there were other living and learning environments in the rest of the city.

Gale said that during the 2010-2011 academic year, 101 classes on campus had been reported as having had a community-based learning activity. The CCE's definition of community-based learning includes lectures by speakers brought to campus as well as off-campus service involvement, Gale said.

While sophomore Jonathan Perez is a Bonner, and volunteers at Church Hill Activities and Tutoring with underprivileged students, he said he also attended international film screenings and Brown Bag events on campus to get involved with the community.

"By being informed, you're helping your community," he said.

Gale also emphasized the importance of Brown Bag events, which take place on select Fridays in Tyler Haynes Commons. The discussion topics range from human trafficking in Virginia to the journalistic issues throughout the world, according to a CCE pamphlet.

Perez said community involvement, whether through on-campus activities or programs in the city, brought a feeling of personal reward.

Curcie said she volunteered with Boaz and Ruth, an organization that provides job training for released prisoners, each week and had been involved in service during high school. While she has taken on one-time service commitments, such commitments raise the question of whether one day actually benefits anyone or anything, she said.

Even though the Bonner Program and other programs through the CCE emphasize long-term commitments to service, Perez said, "I do think you can make a difference in a day."

For students who are not committed to programs for the semester, Gale said, "It's not too late to get connected in Richmond."

Students can join the CCE list serve, which has more than 2,000 members, in order to find when one-time service opportunities are available through partner organizations in the community, Gale said.

"There are just a million different things," she said.

Contact staff writer Katie Toussaint at katie.toussaint@richmond.edu

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