Several first-year students at Chestnut Hill College had the chance to experience a different kind of orientation this year. In addition to the traditional icebreakers and team building activities, 11 students new to campus spent a week volunteering throughout Philadelphia to kick off the school year.
The Leadership, Engagement and Service program, known as LENS, is in its second year at the college and was designed to give students the chance to learn about life beyond the campus before embarking on college life.
‘The root causes’
“We really to try contextualize where we are. These issues are not just ‘out there’,” said Ryan Murphy, the director of service learning programs at Chestnut Hill College.
Murphy added that the program focuses on taking the students to organizations within the city for a reason.
“There can be a certain sense of glamor associated with service” when you do it in places other than where you live, explained Murphy. “We want students to face some of those issues of poverty and inequality in our own city,” he continued.
Students moved in one week before general first-year orientation started and spent the week working with different organizations throughout the city. The students served meals at Face to Face in Germantown, packaged frozen meat for distribution at Philabundance in Center City, volunteered at Safe Haven in West Oak Lane and worked on a sustainable garden run by the college’s Earth Center.
To prepare for the week, students were asked to read an excerpt from Elijah Anderson’s “The Code of the Street,” titled “Down Germantown Avenue,” where the author notes that the changing scenes of Germantown Avenue represent the spectrum of American socioeconomic classes.
“What we really want to work on past charity, is an understanding of justice,” said Murphy. “We want to work on understanding social inequality and the root causes of injustices,” he continued.
A new start
Barbara Days, a first-year student from Bethlehem said she is normally a shy person, but coming to campus early and working with the other students in the program gave her the chance to open up and feel comfortable before classes started.
“We became one big family,” she said of her fellow LENS students. The group now resides side-by-side in one of the college’s “living learning” communities.
The program requires students to apply once they have accepted the college’s offer of admission and seeks students that have a background in service as well as those who “are looking to turn over a new leaf” in college, according to Murphy.
Days has been doing community service since she was in middle school but said the program helped her fall in love in Philadelphia.
“I used to think [Philadelphia] wasn’t a great place,” she said of her visits to the city to see her grandmother. “But being part of LENS gave me the chance to feel like I am part of this city and gave me a greater love for it,” she continued.
Looking forward, the program hopes to have the participants become student leaders for future such service initiatives at the college. This year, junior Marissa Mango is leading the group of first-years.
“I am there for the students to lean on and to help them get out of their comfort zone,” she said.
The group plans to continue volunteering throughout the year by holding service days over winter and spring break and participating in the upcoming campus-wide day of service.