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Spring break gives students an opportunity to give back

Christian Hardigree



Un-BULL-ievable Service Break Trips are part of "service-learning" at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Photo provided.

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It’s spring break time here in Florida, which traditionally conjures images of a busy airport, boisterous parties and crowded beaches. It makes me think of one of my more memorable spring break experiences from my youth at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. My best friend and I parlayed being back-up dancers for an Elvis impersonator in Lake Havasu into a free vacation.

What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas – but that’s a story for another time.

Times have changed and the students are now more savvy and community oriented. I’m pleased to tell you that here at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, many of our students use spring break as an opportunity to give back to those who are less fortunate. In fact, we have a group of 12 students traveling to Nashville to volunteer and engage with community service initiatives.

Called Un-BULL-ievable Service Break Trips, this group will have the opportunity to help with afterschool programs, assist a food bank, work in a domestic violence shelter, support an art class for the homeless, learn about the operations of a thrift store and more. The excursion is being funded by a generous gift from the Sunrise Rotary Club.

One may ask why students would pass up an opportunity to play on the beach, veg out with Netflix, or bring an Elvis show to life for the week? According to Kasey Szel, coordinator of leadership and student organizations at USF St. Petersburg, who is leading the trip, these students are energized by the chance to travel to a different city, volunteer for a variety of organizations and take what they’ve learned home with them.

Encouraging students to engage in service learning isn’t unique to USF St. Petersburg. At one of my previous institutions, Kennesaw State University in Georgia, our hospitality curriculum included 200 hours of service learning as a graduation requirement. The university has an online platform that connects students, faculty and staff to hundreds of volunteer opportunities and helps log their hours. At the end of the year, the students received a report outlining the impact they have made. That really helped differentiate those students upon graduation – employers loved seeing the variety of experiences and the community-minded approach of our graduates.

Why is service-learning important? There are a variety of reasons. For starters, it can help build self-confidence and help students grow as individuals. By exposing them to people with different backgrounds and circumstances to their own, service learning can boost empathy and broaden their understanding of the world around them. Research also shows that it promotes students’ development of critical thinking skills while enhancing their commitment to their communities. They learn more deeply while gaining experience in solving real, community-identified needs.

Typically, young people engage in volunteerism because someone they admired – a parent, a teacher, a coach, a mentor – helped them see the value it brings. Think back to the times in your life when you gave back to your community. I’ve engaged in lots of volunteer opportunities over the years, including serving as a Big Sister through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America program. I loved each opportunity and found that it gave me a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Best of all, engaging in service learning at a young age often turns into a habit. Indeed, many of the students on the USF St. Petersburg trip have volunteered for other worthy causes and are part of a club called Bulls that Serve.

As we grow older (and often more time-restricted), that habit of volunteerism often transitions from giving our labor/time to donating our treasure as we get busier with families and jobs. Instilling that mentality of giving back to the community is a seed that’s best planted at an early age. That’s why we’re especially grateful to the Sunshine Rotary Club for sponsoring the trip – not only are they enabling a worthwhile endeavor, but they’re also serving as role models for the next generation. They are reinforcing the value it brings, and creating a habit that will continue along for a lifetime.

So this spring break, I hope we all follow the example set by our USF St. Pete students and take a few minutes to do something worthwhile. Volunteer for a good cause and get your kids involved. Be a mentor. Or donate to an organization that does meaningful work. And if you are interested in giving back, there are a variety of ways you can make a difference at USF St. Petersburg. You can peruse different opportunities to support our students here.

I assure you, it will be even more fun than dancing back-up for an aging rock star.

Christian Hardigree is Regional Chancellor of USF St. Petersburg.

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