Children all over Los Angeles learn in schools adorned with bright murals that UCLA students have painted on hot, sunny Volunteer Days year after year.
UCLA’s annual Volunteer Day was created nine years ago as a chancellor’s initiative, said Ashley Love-Smith, interim director of the UCLA Volunteer Center. The initiative was meant to ensure the Bruin experience included service. New students are strongly encouraged to participate in Volunteer Day because it might be their first community service experience, among other reasons.
Volunteer Day started as one of UCLA’s largest service initiatives for students, but was scaled back this year because of a staffing transition in the Volunteer Center, Love-Smith said. She added the center is made up of about four paid employees, three of who focus on Volunteer Day, and that she has taken on a significant amount of the center’s work.
Because of this transition, students will visit 31 sites instead of about 50, as in years past, and Love-Smith indicated the center might continue the program at its diminished size in the future. This year, the minimum number of student volunteers needed to cover all projects is 2,900, but in past years, up to 5,500 students participated in the event, she said. As of Tuesday, 3,200 students registered to participate, she added.
These constraints, however, will limit the number of students that participate in the program, depriving them of a shaping Bruin experience, not to mention a valuable exposure to community service. A smaller amount of UCLA students will be interacting with fewer Los Angeles communities. As such, the Volunteer Center should enlist more staff to restore Volunteer Day and ensure it can adequately handle larger iterations of the event in the future.
Volunteer Day is the first opportunity to show new students that there’s more to the college experience than just homework, friends and clubs. It gives them a taste of civic engagement, and by volunteering at different sites throughout Los Angeles, such as schools, food banks and neighborhood centers, students from outside the city can become better acquainted not just with the area, but also their fellow residents.
For example, Morgan Willis, a fourth-year sociology student, said she was unable to attend Volunteer Day her first year at UCLA due to scheduling conflict, but is looking forward to participating this year. She added she values volunteering and believes it can be a humbling experience that helps students feel part of a larger community.
UCLA boasts of its service to the Los Angeles community, and engaging in community service allows it to coordinate and thereby maintain relationships with Los Angeles residents.
And Volunteer Day is crucial to this relationship – UCLA has even been ranked among the top universities for community service. However, continuing the downsized version of Volunteer Day and not addressing the staffing issues at the Volunteer Center jeopardize the university’s mission.
The Volunteer Center should therefore enlist more staffers to help with organizing and coordinating students for Volunteer Day. Doing so would allow the center to rescale Volunteer Day to its former size and accommodate more student volunteers. More sites would also allow students to reach more community members during their volunteering activities.
Of course, it would be naive to ignore students’ prior concerns about Volunteer Day. Students have complained about the the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of the volunteering activities they take part in, and limited supervision of students had a role to play in this. Enlisting more staff for Volunteer Day, however, can help the center better coordinate how project leaders supervise students, and ensure students receive a valuable and memorable volunteering experience.
And while Volunteer Day calls for many beautification projects performed by untrained student volunteers, which some might challenge as not being that worthwhile for the community, even beautification projects can foster bonds between UCLA and Los Angeles communities. Volunteers’ sub-par painting ability doesn’t mean they can’t create a mural along with school kids, and these sorts of activities allow them to engage directly with the community and form lasting bonds.
Volunteer Day is a great opportunity for students to form connections within UCLA while giving back to Los Angeles. The university cannot allow staffing issues to eliminate a valuable campus experience from new students’ forays into Bruin life – and potentially even community service.