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Service Projects Mark 20th Year of Community Connections

First-year Pioneers carry on tradition of giving back

For the 20th year, a group of incoming Sacred Heart University freshmen arrived at school a week early to volunteer for projects throughout Bridgeport as part of SHU’s immersion program, Community Connections.

The program, offered through the Department of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning, started as a way for students to understand different cultures and get involved in community service. Two decades later, the program continues to provide students with a better understanding of civic education, critical thinking and the liberal arts.

At the end of August, 46 freshmen and 15 upperclassmen arrived in Bridgeport to spend a week getting dirty, making a difference and learning about social justice. During the day, students worked on projects at various sites throughout the city, serving food to the needy, laboring at a Habitat for Humanity site and helping nonprofits with maintenance work. They spent evenings at local churches, where they cooked dinner together, participated in activities, discussed culture and religion and relaxed before another busy day.

“Community Connections is an excellent opportunity for first-year students to connect with their classmates before they even begin any academic work,” said Andrea Canuel, assistant director of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning. “Socially, this gives them a ‘head start’ to meeting like-minded students with similar interests. The interaction and bonding with the upperclassmen leaders is also a great advantage for an incoming student.”

Canuel added that Community Connections provides exposure to a community that is often vastly different from the areas in which many of the students were raised. Students form relationships and describe powerful interactions they have with the people they meet as they work, Canuel said. “Students use words like ‘eye-opening’ and describe a significant shift in their perspective about poverty and social marginalization.

“Students become invested in the goal of working towards a more just and fair society for all, and this then manifests itself in the types of activities they pursue in their careers at SHU,” she said. “We see a lot of these first-year students come back to our programs in leadership roles, including the more intensive programs, such as the alternative break programs. It opens up a new set of possibilities for them to use their studies, their gifts and their intellect to contribute in a more meaningful way to creating positive change in the world.”

“At such a unique point in first-year student’s lives, the week prior to starting classes, there is an open-mindedness that allows their experience in Community Connections to make a significant impact,” added Matthew Kaye, director of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning. “Students learn about and see firsthand issues they may have never been exposed to such as immigration, criminal justice and poverty.”

One day during the weeklong program, a group of students spent their morning landscaping the yard of a new duplex Habitat for Humanity had completed.

“I thought this would be a great way to meet new people,” said freshman Kyle Carmona of Stratford as he spread dirt in the backyard of the Beach Street home. He’s majoring in psychology and is on the pre-med track.

Freshman Ashley Vargas, an art and design major from Long Island, said she knew she wanted to get involved with Community Connections when she first learned of it. She described it as a perfect fit for her. “I love community service,” Vargas said.

Freshman Brittany Konen, a nursing major from Pennsylvania, said she volunteered for similar projects in high school and enjoys helping people and communities. “It’s a great way to start the college experience,” she said.

Phyllis Machledt, former director of SHU’s Volunteer Programs & Service Learning, said she raised the idea of Community Connections when she interviewed for the position in the early 1990s. She had participated in a similar program in high school, and her son was doing the same at Princeton University.

“Part of the idea was to have students back a week early and live off-campus in the city,” said Machledt, an Easton resident who still participates in volunteer work and Habitat for Humanity. “Bridgeport had a bad reputation, and we were trying hard to get students involved in positive ways and to get them involved in service learning. This was our attempt to have an immersion program.”

Machledt said Community Connections also gained traction after SHU employees went on a mission trip to El Salvador and were told by a priest that the work they were doing there should be done in their own communities as well.

In 1996, the program had 14 freshmen and four or five leaders, Machledt said. The participants chose what they wanted to do and what charities they wanted to assist for the week. The group talked about important issues and met with city residents as a way to dispel stereotypes.

Machledt said she is delighted that Community Connections is still active. “It’s important to introduce college students to this, to being on their own and going out of their comfort zone,” she said. “It takes a little courage to do something like that. The students have a lot to offer, and they have a lot to learn.”

To view additional photos from Community Connections 2016, click here.