Help Is on the Way

November 3, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

More Than 700 Students Join New CUNY Service Corps

Standing at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, John Jay College of Criminal Justice student Andrei Stump is ready to help when the victims’ families need him. As a volunteer member of the new CUNY Service Corps initiative, Stump’s duties include answering visitor questions, explaining the significance of the two pools at the memorial, and finding names on the wall of nearly 3,000 victims. Stump said many break down in tears upon tracing an imprint of their loved one’s name. For them, he provides compassion.

Andrei Stump, a CUNY Service Corps student, guides visitors at the 9/11 Memorial site.

Andrei Stump, a CUNY Service Corps student, guides visitors at the 9/11 Memorial site.

“I cannot describe the feelings that I have,” said Stump, 24. “Just to see the people’s reaction, the emotion on people’s faces and the joy when they leave the memorial. Even though they come sad, they reflect and you’re able to make an impact.”

In an unprecedented campaign of public service, Stump and more than 700 students from the City University of New York have been deployed to work with community groups, nonprofit organizations, museums and government agencies as part of an ambitious project known as CUNY Service Corps.

CUNY Service Corps students are guiding visitors at the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan; caring for the homeless at a shelter in the Bronx; planting new gardens in Van Cortlandt Park; providing nutritional education to mothers in Bedford Stuyvesant; helping senior citizens in Chinatown; counseling young ex-offenders in Brooklyn courts; teaching children about animals at the Queens Zoo; and assisting families and businesses recovering from Hurricane Sandy throughout the city.

“The mission of the University is to educate the children of the whole people, to create a vital public sphere to contribute to civil society,” said Interim Chancellor William Kelly. “The CUNY Service Corps gives our students … an opportunity to serve the interests of the city and at the same time to develop their own skills and talents, along the way.”

While other universities offer service opportunities, the CUNY Service Corps project is unprecedented in both size and scope with goals of career advancement, promoting civic responsibility and improving the city.

“The CUNY Service Corps is allowing students to be of service to New York City communities and also gain skills that they can use in their academic courses and also in their professional lives,” said Rachel Stephenson, director of CUNY Service Corps. “It’s a chance for CUNY to be visibly part of the city’s health and well-being.”

Lydia Amoa-Owusu, a junior at Borough of Manhattan Community College, said she joined the CUNY Service Corps because of her concern over the rising number of homeless in the city. She and four other CUNY students were assigned to work at Susan’s Place, a shelter in the Bronx managed by Care for the Homeless.

“We live in a society where we think everything is going well and that’s not the case,” she said. “This is something I really wanted to do. I told the people at Susan’s Place, I need this organization more than they need me.”

As members of the CUNY Service Corps, students gain valuable real-life work experience in addressing some of the city’s most pressing problems while earning $12 an hour, and in some cases gaining college credit. Service Corps students work an average of 12 hours a week, with assignments lasting 24 weeks over two semesters.

Over 1,900 CUNY students applied to participate in the Service Corps program.  Students were required to be full time, with a GPA of at least 2.5 and at least 24 college credits earned. The selection process was rigorous and competitive, involving an online application with short essays and a reference, and participation in a group interview.

Students in the CUNY Service Corps were selected from seven CUNY colleges including Borough of Manhattan Community College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Queens College, New York City College of Technology, Kingsborough Community College, Lehman College and College of Staten Island.

The Service Corps students are a diverse group, representative of the overall CUNY student body, with 40 percent first-generation college students, 43 percent non-native English speakers, and half from low-income households.

Kenneth Holmes, dean of students at John Jay College, said being a part of Service Corps provided many working-class students with the opportunity to help while earning a paycheck.

“We have a lot of low-income, a lot of first-generation college students, who would love to be involved in the community but many times, they can’t afford it because they have to work,” Holmes said.

After completion of a two-week training program and a celebratory launch event at John Jay College, students began their assignments in October.

Of the 160 agencies that applied for the program, CUNY faculty and staff chose 95 organizations and nonprofit groups that developed jobs for students focused on four key areas: education, health, economic development and environmental sustainability. Some of the participating groups are the 9/11 Memorial, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Brooklyn Community Services, Care for the Homeless, Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Literacy Partners and Green City Force.

Damilola Iroko, a senior at John Jay College, was excited when he learned he would be working for the Participatory Budgeting Project, based in the East Flatbush office of City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams. Iroko hopes to interact with neighborhood groups in need of government funding.

Iroko said he worries that his generation is too obsessed with technology and out of touch with their communities.

“I do think CUNY Service Corps is a good example for the generation coming after. They really need to see people caring for people,” he said.

CUNY’s history of public service dates back to the University’s beginnings as The Free Academy 166 years ago. Since its founding, the nation’s largest urban public university has maintained an implicit understanding with its students: public service while in college or after graduation in return for the high quality, low-cost, public higher education that is accessible to all.

A century ago, in 1913, City College affirmed that value by introducing recitation of the Ephebic Oath by graduating students. Echoing young Athenian students of antiquity, today’s CCNY graduates still recite the oath, which says in part: “We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty…. We will strive to transmit this city … greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Queens College, founded in 1937, adopted the motto “Discimus ut Serviamus: We learn so that we may serve.” In 1959, nearly 50 years after CCNY adopted the Ephebic Oath, some 8,100 students at the city’s public colleges contributed 313,520 hours to social, educational and welfare agencies, according to a report from the Board of Higher Education, which then supervised the smaller, pre-CUNY municipal system.

The inspiration for today’s CUNY Service Corps came in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Standing amid the destroyed homes in her neighborhood, College of Staten Island graduate Marybeth Melendez, a visually impaired student, helped victims by setting up a food distribution center in the street. The center soon became a command post for the National Guard.

In addition to the work by Melendez and other College of Staten Island students, CUNY organized numerous volunteer efforts to help storm-distressed communities, including providing campus facilities to house displaced victims.  Soon after, then Chancellor Matthew Goldstein established the Service Corps to maintain an ongoing program of community service, building on the spirit of helping that was displayed by CUNY students, faculty and staff.

Interim Chancellor William P. Kelly meets with members of the new CUNY Service Corps.

Interim Chancellor William P. Kelly meets with members of the new CUNY Service Corps.