Four years ago, the idea of having a first year civic engagement community was just a vision of Virginia Tech's Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships in partnership with the Department of Housing and Residence Life

In the fall of 2009, that vision became a reality with a pilot living learning community called SERVE – Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences. Now, the program is in its third year, SERVE continues to grow and create innovative ways to get students engaged in and beyond the New River Valley.

Weekend service immersion trips are the newest opportunity that SERVE offers its freshman students. The trips are organized and led by SERVE alumni, who are now in their second and third year at Virginia Tech.

Last spring SERVE alumni and the center’s staff sat down and asked, “How can we get the students to take what they discuss in the classroom and apply it to a real life situation?” The answer – immerse the students in a culture of community development, servant leadership, and raw foundations of volunteering through weekend trips. The trips would challenge students to learn more about themselves, their classmates, the meaning of civic engagement and what it is “to serve.”

Jake Grohs, Virginia Tech alumnus and assistant director for Student Engagement and coordinator of SERVE, describes the trips as an added plus to the classroom curriculum." These service immersion experiences are a unique opportunity for SERVE students to engage with another community as a team for a weekend or longer.  Despite the seemingly short duration, the students develop deepened relationships with each other and altered understandings of shared responsibility in transforming community.”

A total of three trips are offered during the fall semester. Each trip had a different focus of civic engagement. Trip topics ranged from urban poverty in Charlotte, N.C., rural poverty and disaster relief in Pulaski, Va., and homelessness and addiction recovery in Roanoke, Va. Students who participated in the trips have come back to school raving about the weekends and are already discussing plans for more trips.

“Going to Pulaski was one of the most humbling service experiences. I was given the opportunity to learn about a unique, caring community. We were able to not only learn about the tornado’s destruction but its blessings. From this tragedy, Pulaski has risen from the ashes as a closer community,” describes Pulaski, Va., co-leader Amy Godby of Smithfield, Va., a junior majoring in english.  

Students that participated in the Pulaski, Va., trip helped rebuild homes damaged by the tornados in spring 2011. They also had face-to-face interaction with community members affected by the disaster and assisted with moving them into new homes. The students were amazed at how positive the residents were about the damage. Before the tornado some residents did not have running water; now the community is rebuilding with services that locals say they had long hoped for.

The immersion trip to Charlotte, N.C., in early October offered students an opportunity to work with several organizations. Samaritan’s Feet provides shoes to children around the world, Crisis Assistance Ministries has a store for people in need of basic household items at no charge, and Operation Sandwich invites the community to make 800 peanut butter sandwiches for homeless people in the area.   

Megan Murray of Gibsonia, Pa., a junior majoring in international studies and immersion trip leader defined the Charlotte, N.C. trip with one word, “I think 'dignity' is the word I would associate with our weekend in Charlotte. The organizations we worked with worked to ensure that the people they help retain their dignity, whether through providing a pair of shoes or having a checkout at a store where everything is actually free.”

The final trip this semester occurred in November. Students worked with the Roanoke, Va., Rescue Mission. The Rescue Mission is a well-established organization designed to help people struggling with addiction and homelessness to get back on track to a healthy and positive life. 

The success of the semester’s immersion trips will lead to even more exciting trips and projects in the spring semester. “We hope to continue to develop these relationships by sending repeat weekend trips to Charlotte, Pulaski, and Roanoke.  We are also exploring opportunities for some of the academic breaks -- both domestic and international experiences”, says Grohs.

During the spring semester SERVE will combine their class with students from the Residential Leadership Community. Grohs says students are looking forward to teaming up and exploring more possibilities for weekend trips.  The SERVE alumni hope that the immersion trips will continue to be a lasting highlight of the program.

Written by Molly Wagner. Wagner,of Fayetteville, W.Va., is a junior majoring in marketing management in the Pamplin College of Business and minoring in professional writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.