Norwich’s new ‘Civic Scholars’

Left, Civic Scholars Chad St. John, Alexandria Spezia (middle) and Jordan Lutz work at the Vermont Foodbank, volunteering to help hungry Vermonters.

On a recent Saturday at the Vermont Foodbank in Barre, nine Norwich students found themselves getting an unusual workout and hands-on education in the business of feeding hungry Vermonters.

Working together, they sorted 15 pallets of food, which would go out to a network of 225 food shelves, meal sites, senior centers and after-school programs, providing 26,000 meals to Vermont residents in need. Think of it as off-site homework.

The students are part of the new, innovative Civic Scholars Program, which joins a long tradition at Norwich of responding to the needs of communities surrounding the university campus and beyond. From building an orphanage in Tanzania to the thousands of volunteer hours donated by students cleaning up in Northfield following Tropical Storm Irene in August of 2011, students at the school have always responded to the call for service.

The Civic Scholars Program is the brainchild of Nicole DiDomenico, Director of Civic Engagement, Service-Learning and Campus-Community Partnerships. There are 15 students in the inaugural year of the program, ten cadets and five civilians, ten male and five female, who come from different academic disciplines and share different interests.

“This first class of Civic Scholars happens to be a great cross section of our student body,” said DiDomenico, explaining that this class of Civic Scholars will go on to participate for their entire four years at Norwich. A new class will be chosen each succeeding year for 60  Civic Scholars in total.

The participants this year were chosen from freshman and first-year transfer students who applied by completing an essay and taking part in an interview that focused on their previous and future commitment to public service. Applicants were also required to obtain a letter of recommendation from a supervisor that was previously involved with the applicant in a volunteer or service-learning experience.

Once accepted into the four-year program, and upon successful completion of each year’s requirements, students are awarded a $3,000 annual scholarship, totaling $12,000 in all if they complete all four years.

Among the requirements is completing a total of 500 hours of service. The program is structured such that students complete 200 of the 500 hours of community service their freshman year; 150 hours their second year with added responsibilities and emphasis on becoming leaders in training; 100 hours in their junior year, where the scholars focus on helping to lead a service program; and as seniors, complete 50 hours by advising 1st , 2nd  and 3rd year Civic Scholars in the program.

As an Eagle Scout, Chad St. John, 19, a freshman political science major from Glens Falls, N.Y., applied to the Civic Scholars program because he has been involved in community service his entire life. St. John said the challenge of continuing his community service appealed to him. “Since I am going to be here for the next four years, it would be really good to work with the community that I’m going to be living in and get to know some of the community partners,” he said.

St. John explained that the 15 Scholars initially met once a week to get the program started, discussing specific programs, projects and sites where they could volunteer, coordinating coverage and actually working on a number of community service projects during the meetings.

“These people all really want to be doing this,” said St. John of his fellow Scholars. “They applied and were 1 of 15 people selected out of 67 applicants; it was as a really selective process.”

The Civic Scholars have jumped into a wide variety of civic engagement sites and activities: the annual Blood and Bone Marrow Registration Drive, the Clothing Drop and Swap,  Mayo Healthcare, the Veterans’ Place, the Buddy-Up Youth Mentoring program, the  Northfield Police Department, Campus Public Safety, the Bridges After School Program in Northfield, the Boys and Girls Club, the Sullivan Museum and the development of a Norwich Amnesty International Chapter. As each year the program grows with an additional 15 Civic Scholars, the program expects to contribute 30,000 service hours a year when the 60 Scholars are all enrolled.

DiDomenico sees many benefits and ideas coming out of the program.   “They all have different social circles and academic majors so they all have different spheres of influence,”  DiDomenico said. “Not only are they responsible for doing direct service, but also for recruiting their friends for one-time and ongoing service opportunities. So the reach and the capacity for them to be real influencers of change and action in terms of civic engagement is really high and exciting.”

Students participating in the program are also exposed to a leadership development component that is embedded into the program. Civic scholars complete the Ascend, Peak and Summit leadership seminars and receive a certificate in leadership upon completion. For the first group of Civic Scholars, this training is critical as they don’t have senior Civic Scholars serving as mentors to work with and learn from within the program.

The student scholars admit there are challenges as they initiate this first year of the program.“Sometimes it can be stressful, and can feel like a lot to handle, but I have learned that time management is everything,” said Alexandria Spezia, 19, a freshman computer electrical engineering major from Bergen County, N.J. “With the help of my staff sergeants, I was able to plan everything out, and prioritize to make everything work,” said Spezia.

Spezia was one of those working at the Vermont Food Bank service project on March 4, where she also got a first-hand look at  how the Food Bank works The Vermont Foodbank’s vast and fast-moving distribution system delivers millions of pounds of food around the state and relies heavily on the assistance of volunteers such as Spezia and her fellow students.

Spezia explained that one of the programs is the BackPack Program, which gives school children nonperishable, vitamin-fortified foods at their school. Guidance counselors, school nurses and other school personnel who see students without food can send information about the free program home along with a permission slip to access the program for these students. Other programs such as Food for Seniors and Veggie Van Go helped to provide more than 12 million pounds of food to Vermonters in FY 2016, according to the Foodbank.

As the Civic Scholars participate in all their initiatives, they also become great ambassadors and gain a wealth of knowledge about the causes with which they are involved.  Spezia, for example,  in her primary project for the Civic Scholars Program works with the Buddy Up Youth Mentoring program, which brings 3rd – 7th grade students from the Northfield and Roxbury area together with student mentors on a weekly basis.

“It’s a great way for the kids in the community to bond with a mentor. When things become stressful at home or school, these kids can play, hang out and talk to us,” Spezia said. “I enjoy being a part of Buddy Up because it’s a nice distraction from school. I see these kids when they come and leave Buddy Up so happy, and it’s awesome to be a part of something that influences the youth.”

Michael Anastasio, 19, a freshman criminal justice major and Civic Scholar from Long Island, N.Y., volunteers at The Veterans’ Place in Northfield, an experience he finds very rewarding. The Veterans’ Place provides transitional living for homeless veterans in Central Vermont.

“It is the highlight of my week going down there,” said Anastasio, “You get to see what you do has a direct impact.” Anastasio, who looks forward to entering the military, said he feels that his work with the veterans, and understanding many of the issues that they face, is as beneficial to him as he believes it has been to them.

Like Spezia, Anastasio finds that his participation in the Civic Scholars Program has improved his time management skills, an attribute that he looks forward to sharing as he provides leadership for the next freshman class of Civic Scholars.

At Anastasio’s primary service project at the Veteran’s Place, he provides a wide variety of assistance to the staff and residents. This includes the development of their website, assistance with fundraising programs, cooking meals and helping with daily operations.

Each of the Civic Scholars has input into the area or service project that they would like to have as their primary service site. “It really varies depending on their interest and depending on the type of need within the community,” said DiDomenico, “We have a student that really wants to get involved in a local fire department and a potential Civic Scholar who wants the same, so we’re hoping to make that connection”

The Civic Scholars Program is modeled from, and is an evolution of, the very successful AmeriCorps program at Norwich, DiDomenico said. In 2012, NU had the largest AmeriCorps team in Vermont with 34 members, but the program was canceled when the host organization working with Norwich was unable to secure national funding.

The Civic Scholars Program replicated many of the effective attributes of the AmeriCorps program and a Community Service Scholars Program that DiDomenico ran at Plattsburgh State University in New York. These included weekly team meetings and the team leadership approach to running the program. A key aspect is the four-year structure of the program, which allows for students to progress in their roles from participants to leaders and then mentors and role models for the younger emerging leaders.

For DiDomenico the evolution of these programs has mirrored her personal development in community service. As a college freshman she first participated in Adopt-a-Block community service programs, and reflecting on that service, DiDomenico said, “I really developed a sense of purpose in terms of where I wanted to see my future head.” From working with literacy volunteers and  holding positions with her college newspaper to volunteering with Catholic Charities at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, she was able to begin to know more about some of the nation’s social issues such as homelessness and poverty.

At Norwich and in Vermont,  DiDomenico said  the issues remain the same, such as homelessness, poverty and hunger, and the Civic Scholars Program offers an exciting avenue to work to address them. As the number of Civic Scholars grow and the effort develops, she believes Norwich University students will have an expanding opportunity to participate in meaningful community service.

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