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Since its founding in 1844, Olivet College has been dedicated to service in the community. In 1994, the Olivet Plan only strengthened the College’s dedication to service learning, and the numbers to support it include 67, 37 and 26. Mike Fales ’75, director of service learning and campus ministries and assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies and religion, reports 67 weekend service trips, 37 all-campus Service Days and 26 Alternative Spring Break trips. Add to that 15 December disaster relief trips, eight Greek service days and seven international trips with service components, and it becomes clear how pervasive service learning opportunities are at Olivet.

Building a Better Future

Studying service learning numbers continues to be impressive. The December 2019 service trip completely filled just one minute after registration opened. And, 4% of the entire student body participated in an Alternative Spring Break trip this year — two groups of 20 volunteered for relief service in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Holly Hill, Florida.

Jacob Richards ’18, community service coordinator and director of the Difference Maker program, heralds Olivet’s student volunteers: “While 4% may sound small, I have doubt that many other colleges or universities could reach that percentage. Olivet students love to serve.”

Service is widely diverse in both location and duration. Projects have fanned out across Michigan to towns like Port Austin, where students helped create a history center, repair a lighthouse and enhance a nature reserve with new, improved trails. Expanding their service even further, Olivet students engaged in disaster relief in Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Puerto Rico, where families had been without electricity for eight months. Spring trips in May have been a combination of cultural awareness and service to Peru, Mexico, Jamaica, South Africa and Costa Rica. The numbers continue to build.

The overall volunteerism is impressive, but hearing specifics of service projects spike realization of the extent of need in the U.S. and around the world. Individual stories pull at heartstrings and simply make anyone connected to Olivet proud to be a Comet. Students have helped build or repair homes and offer food assistance for the elderly and others living below poverty levels in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, northern Tennessee and Gary, Indiana.

Richards shares a story that serves as a poignant example of why service learning programs are so important. “The tragic story of a single mom from Houston, Texas, whose husband was killed in a gruesome accident impacted many of us.” Struggling, she eventually gained stability by working three jobs while attending school. At long-last, she graduated and bought a house for her daughter and herself. Three months later, before getting completely settled, the floods created by Hurricane Harvey destroyed her new house. Lacking flood insurance, the family lost everything they had worked so hard to accomplish. Student volunteers were able to repair the house and return the small family to their home.

Lessening the Burden of Others

Olivet touts its commitment to relationship-based education. One component is fostering faculty-student mentor relationships; another is making sure students learn the relationship between their chosen major and the work-world requirements expected after graduation. A third component to relationship-based education directly draws on service learning.

“Service learning provides students with the opportunity to grow in ways a lecture could never provide,” Richards said. “I hope that every Olivet College student attends at least one service learning program in their career because the change that blossoms within an individual after such an experience is invaluable.”

Students return from service learning opportunities with a heightened understanding of how events create human suffering. They gain empathy for others, promoting the ability to apply humane principles of the Olivet Compact that include taking “responsibility for service to Olivet and the larger community.” Students develop skills through practical application that can bring tangible results to lessen the burdens of others. Service learning participants help bring hope into the lives of those most in need.

The original Olivet College catalog states, “We simply wish to teach our students the divine art and science of doing good to others.” From the beginning, Olivet was labeled as a college of “preachers and teachers,” the kind of thinkers who place people over payment. Fales points out that “our service learning program is the embodiment of that vision 175 years later.” With a history that solid, it’s no wonder service learning programs like Difference Makers, Alternative Spring Break trips, December disaster relief, weekend service, Greek service days and all-campus service days have settled so comfortably and seamlessly into the flow of campus activities.

At Olivet, a complete student equates to a complete human being.

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