George Mason University
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George Mason University

Civic Engagement in the Honors College begins during Orientation

June 27, 2019

During the second day of orientation, Honors College students undertake a major service project. This year, over 400 students volunteered for the Arlington Food Assistance Center, DC Central Kitchen, Humane Rescue Alliance, Presidents Park Greenhouse, Innovation Food Forest, and Potomac Heights Garden.

"It takes all of us to make a difference," an Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) coordinator exclaimed to a room of dozens of Honors College students participating in the annual orientation service project on Tuesday, June 25th. Students had just loaded hundreds of pounds of carrots and apples into the Hub Ballroom and were about to commence bagging and crating this produce so that it may be delivered to people in need.

"The orientation service project is a great opportunity to get introduced to the wonderful civic engagement opportunities that the Honors College and Mason have to offer."

Tahmina Rahman, Honors College academic advisor

AFAC is a local organization devoted to providing groceries to families who would otherwise experience food insecurity or might not be able to access nutritional groceries. After hearing from the AFAC organizer that more than 35% of the people they serve are children, several students participating in the service project emphasized that they appreciated having the opportunity work as a team to help children and give back to the community.

AFAC was just one of several partner organizations who incoming first year Honors College students served on Tuesday. 

In the Johnson Center, many students worked on packing box lunches for DC Central Kitchen. DC Central Kitchen is devoted to fighting hunger in Washington DC both by providing food to those in need and by working to address the causes of food insecurity. For instance, the organization gives jobless adults the opportunity to prepare for culinary careers by giving them the opportunity to help the organization make 3 million meals per year.

Students indicated that the project was a lot of fun, helped them begin to get to know each other, and several said they appreciated that it gave them a chance to exercise their leadership skills. The meal boxes prepared for DC Central Kitchen included a turkey sandwich, chips, carrots, a piece of fruit, and a cookie. Honors College students were asked to box the lunches, then stack them on pallets and wrap them so that they could be returned to DC Central Kitchen, but they had to come up with the process by which these tasks could be achieved. 

Honors College advisor Tahmina Rahman indicated that some students facilitated others so that everyone could work together to figure out how to pack the lunches in an organized and efficient way. Ms. Rahman says that she thought it was fun to work alongside the students when packing the lunches, emphasizing especially that she thought it was good to have the opportunity get to know the students as a group, since working with them gave her the chance "to hear their conversations and to have conversations with them" before they even arrive for classes.

Also in the Johnson Center, some students worked to create dog toys for the Humane Rescue Alliance. These toys will help enrich the daily lives of dogs in shelters awaiting adoption. Although most students were not expecting a service project and no one had any idea what the service project might be, students said that they found it to rewarding to have the opportunity to make a material difference while at orientation.

Three service project groups were working in on-campus gardens:  the Presidents Park Greenhouse, the Innovation Food Forest, and the Potomac Heights Vegetable Garden. Several students indicated that this was their first time gardening and that they appreciated learning about ways to get involved at Mason that they would not have otherwise known about. 

Students in the Presidents Park Greenhouse learned how to harvest produce from the hydroponic garden. Students harvested basil, lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops. While there, they learned a little about integrated pest management techniques including the use of beneficial insects like ladybugs to reduce the impacts of pests like aphids. 

"I think it adds another dimension to the Mason experience that I didn't anticipate before."

Participant in Presidents Park Greenhouse service project

The Innovation Food Forest is a permaculture demonstration project operated by the Office of Sustainability.  It models permaculture design, permits community members to informally harvest food from the many perennial crops, and provides a peaceful and relaxing space to walk in the middle of campus. Students were enlisted to help weed the paths through the food forest. Associate Dean Jan Allbeck said that she appreciates that the Innovation Food Forest is so close to the Honors College offices and that she wanders through it fairly often: "now," she says, "you may find me over there randomly picking weeks, since I now I know what is allowed and what's not allowed."

The Potomac Heights Vegetable Garden is a more traditional vegetable garden when contrasted to the the hydroponic greenhouse and the food forest. Students there worked on processing compost and weeding.

According to Associate Dean Jan Allbeck, the orientation service project punctuates the orientation experience with a break during which students get an opportunity to talk with each other. More broadly, she indicates that the service projects "set  the tone for their experience at Mason."

Similarly, students spoke positively about the overall service project experience. One student volunteering for DC Central Kitchen underscored that she understands that this kind of civic engagement is a key part of the Honors College experience: "I thought it represented what it means to be in the Honors College: to be leaders, to do service, and to reach out and give back to our community."