Two weeks after arriving in the United States for graduate school, Zhengmin Li found himself in the middle of an elementary school, spreading mulch over the sides of a creek at the UCLA Lab School.
On one side of Stone Canyon Creek, students hauled wheelbarrows of dirt away from the site. Digging their gloved hands into the ground, others cleared ivy from the area.
Lifting filled burlap sacks in groups of twos and threes, the students from De Neve Plaza and Rieber Hall chattered with their new floormates, sharing excitement about the start of college.
Surrounded by about 300 freshmen, Li, a graduate engineering student, served as a task captain at the Lab School for UCLA’s third annual Volunteer Day on Tuesday.
He supervised undergraduate volunteers and made sure that the first time the UCLA Lab School was partnering with the Volunteer Center went smoothly.
At the site, hundreds of students, project leaders and task captains worked to clear invasive vegetation from the natural habitat of Stone Canyon Creek on the UCLA campus.
“This was my first time volunteering in America,” said Li, an international student from Shanghai. “I just wanted to be exposed to a different culture and learn new things and work for a good cause.”
Li is one of hundreds of graduate students who participated in Volunteer Day, in addition to more than 6,000 undergraduate freshmen. Now in its third year of operation, UCLA Volunteer Day is continuing to expand the scope of its volunteers, said Antoinette Mongelli, executive director of the Volunteer Center.
At Union Rescue Mission, students and faculty from the School of Public Health served as a team of task captains. Additionally, the Anderson School of Management hosted a series of workshops at four local elementary schools, sharing their knowledge of entrepreneurship and how to apply those skills to serve the community.
Mongelli said this year approximately twice as many graduate students as last fall served at the 26 different volunteer sites as project directors or task captains. A total of 1,000 leaders supervised projects ““ the majority of whom were graduate students, she said.
“For people usually confined to one part of the campus, they can appreciate that there are other parts of the campus that also reach out and contribute to the community,” said Reza Jarrahy, an assistant professor of plastic surgery. “They experience mutual benefits.”
Jarrahy, whose children attend the Lab School, helped initiate the collaboration between graduate, undergraduate and Lab School students through the Volunteer Center. By serving alongside the freshmen, graduate students can show their support for community engagement, he said.
Ramon Gomez, a first-year history student, said collaborating with his floormates to accomplish various tasks provided opportunities to build friendships during their first week in college.
“At UCLA, besides academics, we also need to serve the community and be a role model to the kids, not because it’s mandatory, but it’s from the good of your heart,” he said.