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NU's AmeriCorps 'largest in Vermont'

By Sam Spinrad
On October 19, 2011

Norwich's AmeriCorps team is now the largest in Vermont, and is thriving thanks to its diversity and leadership skills, according Nicole DiDomenico, director of Norwich's center for civic engagement and campus climate.

"What's even more impressive than our team size is the quality of our membership," she said. "We have a really fantastic cross-section of our student body who are AmeriCorps members."

NU's team serves in many ways, including human rights advocacy, youth programs and outreach, trail rebuilding, environmental conservation projects. Students work with Habitat for Humanity, in hospitals, with senior citizens and for environmental groups.

The Norwich AmeriCorps has a partnership with the Vermont Campus Compact. It is a "Students in Service program" that requires the 27 participating students to complete at least 300 hours of community service, DiDomenico explained.

AmeriCorps is a federal agency intended to "strengthen communities and develop leaders through team-based national and community service," according to its website.

DiDomenico said Norwich's AmeriCorps members compile nearly 10,000 hours of service per year. When she started at Norwich in 2002, there were three members. "Only one of them finished (the hours)," she said.

The program has become competitive; there were more applications than spots. Over the summer, Norwich got five more positions.

To be eligible, students must demonstrate commitment to service. They need great recommendations, a good interview, excellent time management skills, a particular area to focus a project, no judicial issues and a grade point average above 2.0.

Barbara McCarragher, a 23-year old junior double majoring in civil engineering and criminal justice from Plainfield, N.H., joined AmeriCorps last April, after years of community service, including at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she transferred from.

"When I came to Norwich, it was kind of a natural progression to become involved with NUEMS here," she said. "Norwich definitely has a good volunteering atmosphere." NU Emergency Medical Service is the focus of McCarragher's project, which gives her diverse experiences in medical emergencies.

McCarragher said a call might involve a sprained ankle; another might be from the local nursing home, and a third could deal with an infant. Since she is national registry certified, she spends many of her hours in Northfield.

Kayla Weimert, 20, a junior from La Plata, Md., with a dual major in architecture and civil engineering, is coordinating alternative spring break trips and working with Habitat for Humanity. "Anybody can handle (the hours)," she said about managing her heavy academic course load and volunteering.

The AmeriCorps team went on a retreat to Waterbury on the weekend of Sept. 16. "We helped with some relief up there (caused by hurricane)," Weimert said. "We bonded and set up how we were going to work together as a team."

Joshua Fontanez, 21, a senior political science major from Browns Mills, N.J., said community service environments promote diversity. "I don't think I ever would have hung out with some of the people unless it was for the AmeriCorps," he said.

DiDomenico also emphasized the diversity. "We have commuter students; we have athletes; we have members of the corps and civilian side. They're also coming from many states. We have one student who very recently became an American citizen. We have sophomores through seniors represented," she said.

In exchange for the 300 hours of service, the students get about $1,100 that can be applied to tuition.

Students can do an additional term. "I'm loving it," said John Burks, 20, a sophomore civil engineering major from Paris, Texas. "I want to sign up for a second service year next year."

Burks, who is involved in several clubs, noted that "every member wants to help out so much, and they're all very busy, so for them to make time shows me that I can make time in my schedule as well."

Fontanez is involved in many organizations, from executive officer of the provisional battalion to the overnight coordinator for the Maroon and Gold Key, a club that supports prospective students.

"Proper time management is a key fact," he said. "The whole point of community service is you're sacrificing something. Most of that is what you consider personal time. You're sacrificing your weekend and nights to give to something."

"I think a lot of people think, ‘Wow! 300 hours, I couldn't possibly get that done,' but there's a lot of things that can count as volunteering that people may not realize," McCarragher said. She said her hours spent increasing her level of certification for NUEMS counted.

She added that if students do not feel ready to commit to 300 hours, they can "go to (DiDomenico's) office, figure out when they can volunteer, start getting involved, and then maybe they'll find something that they're really passionate about and carry that out in AmeriCorps terms."

There are tricks for students to get their hours in more convenient ways. "My clinical hours transfer over to my AmeriCorps hours," said Megan Campbell, a 21-year-old senior nursing student from Piney River, Va.

Campbell volunteers at Union Elementary School in Montpelier.She said she gets to "play with kindergartners through fifth-graders every day."

Another way for students to get their hours is through work study. "Work study hours can count as their AmeriCorps hours," according to DiDomenico.

She mentioned that some work study hours are required to be in community service, and that the loophole provides "a really great incentive for students who are work study eligible to apply for."

Tropical Storm Irene "increased interest in volunteering in general," especially in rooks and sports teams. DiDomenico said that the volunteers have "their hearts in the right place and good intentions."

"To serve others will only improve yourself. There's no faster way to get to a leadership position than serving others," Fontanez said. For his project, he works through the student government, focusing on diversity and equality.

Weimert said the experience is unique at NU. "We make it more of a team (here) than I have heard at other schools. We have more of a support group for it," she said.

McCarragher said it is nice to know she's made a difference in a positive way, while bonding with fellow students. "When you see someone at 2 a.m., you're seeing them at their most honest. You're really getting to see the true them, not how they present themselves in the classroom. You get to really know them," she said.

McCarragher praised the overall atmosphere, saying, "It's nice being around other people who are enthusiastic about volunteering."

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