The Asheville Citizen-Times interviews students at Service Day 2017.
As a national liberal arts institution, Warren Wilson College attracts students from many different places. Representing countries like China and Northern Ireland and 38 states, the arriving students this fall bring a variety of experiences and insights to the campus. For nearly three decades, an annual tradition has helped the new arrivals acclimate to the area and bond with each other.
As part of new student orientation, Warren Wilson College’s Service Daygives undergraduates the chance to focus on the needs of others. Four days before classes began, 175 first-year and transfer students boarded buses en route to school and community gardens, food banks and pantries, and outdoor classrooms throughout Buncombe County.
According to Brooke Millsaps, associate dean of community engagement, Service Day introduces students to the College’s community engagement curriculum.
“In addition to introducing community engagement, we set the context for why it has to happen and reflect on what it means to larger communities,” Millsaps said. “It was a wonderful day with significant work accomplishments at 13 local organizations. This event requires the best of Warren Wilson College – collaboration, can-do spirit, willingness to learn and community-mindedness – and folks did not disappoint.”
Megan Stuber, a Candler native who has lived in Florida for the last 10 years, said her Service Day experience has given her a new way to look at the Asheville area.
“I think volunteering is a good way to get outside of your own mind by focusing on other people,” Stuber said. “This, being at Warren Wilson, has been a new discovery of the place that I love the most. Experiencing Warren Wilson and the good work that it is doing has allowed me to see Asheville in a different light and just being home in a really different way. That makes me happy.”
Nirmal de Alwis, a native of Sri Lanka double-majoring in outdoor leadership and psychology, is entering his third year at Warren Wilson College. He is one of the returning students on campus early to help with new student orientation, which includes participating in Service Day. He believes Service Day fulfills a fundamental need people have when they enter new situations.
“Coming from the outdoor leadership perspective, Service Day is like a team-building event,” de Alwis said. “You start working with someone you just met yesterday and start talking to them. It’s the best way to meet new people, break the ice and make new friends on your second day in college.”
“These guys are awesome,” she said pointing to fellow transfer students Amber Colyer and Forest Ownbey. “I think that’s a big part that I love about Warren Wilson. We all met each other just yesterday, and everyone feels really comfortable. I feel like everyone is being themselves, and that’s something you don’t really see that much when everyone’s in awkward and new situations. It’s not often that everyone’s nice and welcoming.”
Stuber and de Alwis were part of the Service Day group working at Loving Food Resources (LFR). According to its website, LFR provides “food, health and personal care items to people in 18 counties of western North Carolina who are living with HIV or AIDS or who are in home hospice care with any diagnosis.” Projects for 2017 included cleaning and restocking the pantry.
“Students get to know the community that they are serving,” said Nancy Gavin, LFR executive director. “They know why they’re doing the things they’re doing. It’s not all about ‘me.’ It’s about living in community.”
Other partners for Warren Wilson College’s 2017 Service Day were Asheville Greenworks/Sand Hill Community Orchard, The Lord’s Acre, Black Mountain Elementary School, Dr. Wilson’s Community Garden, Owen Middle School, Swannanoa Community Garden, Bounty & Soul, ArtSpace Charter School, Evergreen Charter School, Shiloh Community Garden, Verner Center for Early Learning with The Roots Foundation, and Mountain Area Residential Facilities.
As the 27th Service Day concluded, de Alwis offered one final thought about the value of Service Day. He believes all students connect service with academics, but the type of connection is different for each person.
“I don’t think anyone [observing] this day would immediately understand what this day means to the Warren Wilson College community socially as well as academically. For me, as an outdoor leadership major, there is a connection between my major and working at a food bank. When you go down to the roots of outdoor education and outdoor leadership, it’s basically community service as well. You are trying to make your community better. That’s where I find the connection,” de Alwis added.
Service, now called community engagement, has been a Warren Wilson College graduation requirement since 1959. Service Day launched in the middle of a semester in 1990. While not required the first year, student participation was high enough to garner support for an annual event.
In a given year, Warren Wilson undergraduates collectively contribute more than 50,000 hours of service to 258 community partners. The effort led to a $420,000 economic impact in Buncombe County for 2014-15. Last month, The Princeton Review ranked Warren Wilson College No. 10 among schools with “students most engaged in community service.”
For more information about Warren Wilson College’s Center for Community Engagement programming, visit http://warren-wilson.edu/service.