The Power of One, The Power of Why

Nori Carter, Director, and Katie Burke, Assistant Dean, Weppner Center for LEAD & Service-Learning, Florida Atlantic University

September 19, 2016

Institutionalizing a belief and practice in civic learning and democratic engagement takes passion and follow through. As a four-year public institution with over 30,000 students in a service area that extends six counties and stretches over 100 miles of Florida’s southeast coast, for Florida Atlantic University (FAU) the concept of institutionalizing anything is a worthy undertaking and does not happen overnight. Challenges based on the purpose, cause or belief of our work, however, enable growth as an institution, bettering our students, our community and ourselves as servant leaders.

The power of one is how FAU’s institutionalization of civic learning and democratic engagement began 20 years ago. The late Dr. Daniel B. Weppner, a faculty member from the College of Education, had a vision for establishing a place on campus that would motivate students to get involved in volunteer services and believed deeply in the transformative power of volunteerism, for our students, and also for our community and our institution. Dr. Weppner requested support from the University President and opened the Campus Volunteer Center in 1996.

Initially, Dr. Weppner was the sole captain of the Volunteer Center which then quickly expanded to include more staff, more community partnerships, additional programming and an interactive website. In the year 2000, the Student Government Association established and funded a program, Students Advocating Volunteer Involvement (SAVI), a partnership that is still thriving today. In the following years, SAVI and the Volunteer Center services expanded to FAU’s Broward and Jupiter Campuses thereby bringing FAU’s community service programs to additional Florida communities and students.

With the driving purpose of bringing a deeper, more immersive experience to students, the Volunteer Center representatives turned to the co-curricular service-learning alternative breaks program model and implemented the first trip in Spring 2007 with service in Louisiana for disaster recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina. The civic learning and democratic engagement of the FAU students that began during the trip has become institutionalized as FAU’s alternative spring break program, now known as Owl Breaks, celebrates its 10th anniversary with a return trip to Louisiana planned for March 2017. 

Paralleling the growth of the Center’s volunteer and co-curricular service-learning programs was the formal establishment of Academic Service-Learning during the mid-2000’s. Now, the Center had the opportunity to infuse civic learning and democratic engagement across the proverbial bridge to Academic Affairs. With a close collaboration between the Center’s staff and a single faculty member in Academic Affairs (again, the power of one), the Academic Service-Learning (A S-L) program began to gain ground as faculty who were already connecting their student learning with relevant and meaningful service in the community were identified. And, for some not practicing this teaching pedagogy who saw its benefits and purpose, its “why”, became early adopters of A S-L.

Seeing a need to grow with the changing volunteer language landscape, the Volunteer Center staff revisited the policy, procedure and mission of the community service programs at FAU and in the Summer of 2007 won support to rename the Center to the Dr. Daniel Weppner Center for Civic Engagement and Service with continued operations on the Broward, Boca Raton and Jupiter campuses. The vision and legacy created by Dr. Weppner is remembered daily in the Center’s name.

In July of 2015, the Center grew again with a marriage to the LEAD (Leadership Education and Development) department creating the Weppner Center for LEAD & Service-Learning. As a newly merged power of one based on a very clear why, the potential for student and faculty reach magnified allowing the Center to more effectively address the institution’s commitment to service that is woven throughout the University’s mission, values and strategic plan launched during the 2014-2015 fiscal year, A Strategic Plan for the Race to Excellence 2015-2025.

Part of the Center’s commitment to this strategic plan includes participating on the Community Engagement Task Force whose mission is to develop and recommend policies, procedures and practices that ensure that community engagement is central to FAU’s mission and actions. This Task Force will further institutionalize civic learning and democratic engagement at FAU through its work and applying for Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement in the 2020 application cycle.

As servant leaders, there is always work to be done to serve alongside our communities in solving some of society’s toughest challenges. The institutionalization of civic learning and democratic engagement will hold steadfast as we continue to better our communities, our students and ourselves. The Center that started as a table in the breezeway now offers programs and resources that benefit all of South Florida and ultimately, our world, by investing in students to become change agents. Our power of one. Our why.

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