This column originally appeared Aug. 10, 2019 in www.srqmagazine.com.
Research shows individuals who volunteer and engage in community service projects are happier, healthier and more productive. At New College of Florida, we’ve found this is particularly true within our community and with our students. The benefits cut both ways. The community appreciates the energy, smarts and passion students bring to projects. Students involved in community service are more likely to do well in their classes and tend to stay in school. They meet community and business leaders where relationships can, and often do, lead to internships and careers. These off campus experiences also expose students to the diversity of thought, backgrounds and life experience that Sarasota and Manatee counties offer.
Some universities have all incoming students read the same book as a way of providing a shared experience they can discuss. We feel so strongly about the benefits of community service we’ve build it into the New College experience. We engage all incoming students in a Common Challenge instead of a Common Read. Students read scholarly literature about, and engage in, community service aimed at addressing a common theme.
Last year’s Challenge was food insecurity. This year’s Challenge is homelessness. In our area, on any given night, more than 1,000 residents are homeless. The issues are familiar to most of us: the homeless are more likely to suffer from lack of health care and lack of basic nutrition. Some have mental problems that make it hard to get work. Some are children and attending school is difficult. The social and financial costs are high. Despite the relative prosperity of our area, about 1.5 percent of our residents are homeless, a rate that is nearly identical to the statewide average.
Later this month, as our new students gather at New College for Orientation, the Office of Student Affairs has invited a local panel of experts—people who work every day on the front lines to address homelessness and poverty issues in Sarasota and Bradenton—to campus to discuss the problems facing the community and what can be done to help. In the days that follow, students will volunteer with several of these organizations, to experience the scope of the problem and make connections with the community. Additional volunteer opportunities, in which all students can participate, will be made available throughout the fall semester.
New College of Florida has a long history of involvement in the local community, and we are very proud of the profound difference some of our students have made over the last half-century. Many of our alumni are active in local nonprofits, working for philanthropic organizations and serving on boards. We are committed to continuing this tradition of being good neighbors with the Common Challenge. We applaud both the students’ and our alumni’s commitment to social and environmental justice, and the way that our marvelous extended community In Manatee and Sarasota welcomes them.
— Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.