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What’s in a name? Quite a lot, when pitching volunteerism to STEM majors

Student Success
October 23, 2020 Luzia Ogureck New York Institute of Technology

Developing an extracurricular volunteer program on campus can be daunting. Studies show that volunteerism is on a national decline; college students have been volunteering less and less since the early 2000s. While a majority of incoming freshmen state that they plan to engage, only about a quarter actually do. In 2018, the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute called this phenomenon “Good Intentions, Gap in Action”.

At New York Tech we, too, grappled with a lack of interest in noncompulsory service projects. An additional hurdle was our college’s academic profile. We largely serve majors in the STEM field - a demographic that tends to be less civically engaged to begin with.

We asked ourselves: How could we translate our institutional mission of empowering students to solve 21st-century challenges into a successful program? What would speak to STEM majors in particular? Could we scale the program while ensuring a meaningful experience for both participants and community partners?

We could.

It all started with finding the right name: Consultants for the Public Good (CFPG). Although volunteerism is a widely recognized professional development tool, this significant “selling point” oftentimes gets reduced to a footnote when it comes to recruitment. By deliberately dropping the word “volunteer” and replacing it with “consultant”, we pitched our program as a professional development opportunity per its headline. Within one day of posting the first “consultancy”, more than 50 students applied through our college’s career platform.

At its core, CFPG embraces two concepts: Adrienne McNally’s “employee citizenship” - how volunteers practice their rights and responsibilities at an organization - and Harry Boyte’s “citizen professional”; someone who acts as a resource to the community to solve public problems.

A skill-based service program, CFPG connects students, faculty, staff, and alumni with non-profit organizations who seek support in a plethora of areas, either on-site or remotely. The program is designed for our students to gain experience in a minimum-risk environment.

Currently, a group of architecture students leads an effort to design a bridge in rural Long Island. The client is a not-for-profit land trust that aims to protect green spaces and historical sites. Another student created a website for a church in Harlem, providing valuable services to his client. He recently handed the project to a peer, who is now working on a workshop curriculum, so members of the congregation can make changes to the website themselves. The remote nature of many projects turned out to be especially advantageous amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Consultants from our Student Veterans Organization were able to raise $35,000 supporting local restaurants and healthcare workers.

Previous teams wrote business plans, developed social media strategies, and created databases, among other tasks.

Students oftentimes feel that they don’t have much to contribute, or that their contributions won’t have much of an impact. CFPG shows them that regardless of their prior work experience, grades, or their expertise in a particular field, they often know more than the organization seeking their assistance. The program makes them more confident as professionals in their field, and it fosters people skills essential to the workplace, including cross-cultural competency, social intelligence, as well as novel and adaptive thinking.

Meanwhile, faculty and staff get the chance to interact with students and colleagues outside of their classrooms or offices through community-based research and project-based learning. Alumni can grow their off-campus networks while staying connected to their alma mater.

As the academic year comes to a close, 342 unique consultants have served 36 community partners; they logged more than 2000 hours of service which - based on the estimated national value of volunteerism - is worth a little over $50,000.