West Virginia University Inspires Connection to Community Through Community Service Project

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Completing one million hours of community service in three years is a lofty goal, but it’s a challenge West Virginia University (WVU) isn’t backing down from. Administrators are going one step further by challenging West Virginia residents to match the university’s efforts, and if all goes well, both the campus community and citizens of the state will have completed two million hours of community service by the end of 2017.

[Above: West Virginia University students participate in community service projects as part of the university’s Million Hour Match program.]

WVU President Gordon Gee says that as a land-grant institution, WVU’s mission centers around community service. The university launched the Million Hour Match program in November 2014 as a way for the campus community to continue acting on its long-standing mission.

However, the project is about more than just completing service hours.

“West Virginia University has a responsibility to bring all the resources [it] can to improve and assist not only our local community, but also the state, nation, and world,” Gee says.

David Fryson, vice president in the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at WVU, says that initiatives such as Million Hour Match are exciting extensions of WVU’s deeply rooted history.

“This isn’t just to gin up enthusiasm,” Fryson says. “It’s part of the DNA of the WVU community.”

How it Began
Students of WVU were the biggest catalyst behind the initiative, according to Kristi Wood-Turner, director of learning and engagement in WVU’s Center for Service and Learning. The center teamed up with students interested in growing the school’s community service efforts to brainstorm ideas, and Million Hour Match was born.

West Virginia University students participate in community service projects as part of the university’s Million Hour Match program.
West Virginia University students participate in community service projects as part of the university’s Million Hour Match program.

“My main focus for the Million Hour Match was to get as many students involved as possible,” says Timothy Bedunah, WVU senior and student leader of the initiative. He says he spoke with numerous student organizations and groups as well as media outlets about the project and was thrilled to see so many people excited about the idea.

With support from most of the campus and local community, Bedunah and other students then sought support from university leadership to bring the project to life.

“Our president was very much part of making sure that, as a part of our mission, this project was done in a big way,” says Fryson.

Fryson, who also met the idea with enthusiasm, quickly stepped up to help develop the initiative, which he believes is an important way to grow diversity and bring the community and campus closer.

“I’m happy that it allows the university to be at the grassroots level,” he says. “My whole life has been trying to tear down the walls between institutions and the ground. This is one way to climb down from the ivory tower.”

The initiative quickly became not just a student project but a call to action for surrounding communities and the entire state.

“Everyone likes a competition,” Wood-Turner says. However, WVU is encouraging students and residents to think of the initiative as more of a team project.

As a collaborative effort, Million Hour Match combines the efforts of WVU, Volunteer WV (the state’s Commission for National and Community Service), and the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal government agency that works with more than five million U.S. citizens to help them improve their communities through service.

“The whole state is behind this,” Wood-Turner says. “This is right in line with what our governor [Earl Ray Tomblin] wanted our state residents to be doing. We really got them to buy into the idea of being [our] partners in this.”

How it Works 
With a student body of nearly 30,000, one of WVU’s biggest challenge with Million Hour Match was how to actually make the project work.

Making it accessible to all students was important to Fryson and Wood-Turner. They discovered that the best way to do so is by using a database system called iServe — the first of its kind in the state — to help the Center for Service and Learning record all completed service hours.

“Through Million Hour Match, we will be able to streamline service data at WVU to show just how much of a positive impact our land-grant institution [is having] on the state,” says Leah Cunningham, operations coordinator and project leader for the initiative.

“Students are so excited about what they’re doing, so it hasn’t been too difficult,” Wood-Turner adds. “They’ve been happy to bring us their data and track their hours.”

To keep students from getting discouraged if they can’t find as much time as they’d like to support the initiative, Wood-Turner says each student has been asked to try to complete a total of 10 hours for the year — enough to significantly contribute to the million-hour goal while also being realistic.

Engaging Students and Communities
Three years is long enough for students and residents to lose some of their excitement over Million Hour Match, so to help keep participants focused and engaged, WVU created 12 (Big!) Days, a series of community service opportunities centered around holidays and special celebrations. A committee — appointed by the Center for Service and Learning — selects these days each year, and this year, it chose Martin Luther King Jr. Day to kick off the program.

West Virginia University students participate in community service projects as part of the university’s Million Hour Match program.
West Virginia University students participate in community service projects as part of the university’s Million Hour Match program.

Service projects this year will span the Morgantown, Fairmont, and Charleston communities, and WVU has partnered with organizations including the American Red Cross, Morgantown Youth Services Projects, and soup kitchens, to provide students opportunities to give back.

Fryson says he was impressed by student participation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as their dedication.— witnessed by their willingness to travel long distances to help those in need in surrounding communities.

“We had students traveling two and a half hours to do work,” he says.

Wood-Turner says students have also been working to build more interest and increase participation by orchestrating a range of activities,  including food drives.

Students who put in more than 100 hours of service are eligible for WVU’s President’s Volunteer Service Award; those selected receive a congratulatory letter from the president of the United States. The award includes several levels — bronze, silver, and gold — and students completing more than 4,000 hours of service are eligible for the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

With more than 280,000 verified hours of service completed thus far, Cunningham says she is confident WVU will reach its goal. And beyond the positive impact this service is having on the campus and surrounding communities, what she finds to be the most intriguing aspect of Million Hour Match is its ability to “inspire learning and promote civic engagement.”

For Gee, these qualities are part of the initiative’s larger focus on helping students grow as compassionate leaders in their communities.

“It’s important that students learn and be exposed to a variety of experiences outside the classroom, and the importance of giving back to one’s community is at the top of that list,” Gee says. “Creating an ethic of service is a key value that we hope will remain with them as they move into their communities upon graduation.” ●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.