Niagara University – the only Western New York college or university that has been named to the President’s Honor Roll for Community Service every year since 2006 – is strategically transforming its approach to service learning and student engagement in the community.
The Catholic and Vincentian university’s flagship service program, Learn and Serve Niagara, was established in 1994 through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Its success prompted Niagara University to make the program a permanent fixture. Data illustrates that NU students currently perform 1,000 hours of service to the community every week through Learn and Serve Niagara.
Moving forward, Niagara University’s service learning program will be known as IMPACT, a rebrand that reflects its measured approach to instilling a model of collective impact that creates systemic change through project-based experiential learning. The transformation of Learn and Serve allows for a more comprehensive and individualized service program, which places more emphasis on professional and personal growth versus a model that highlights hours of service.
At the heart of IMPACT’s mission is the advancement of the culture of civic and community engagement that exists at NU through closer alignment with the university’s Vincentian mission and Strategic Vision Commitments. Application of the model will accentuate career preparation and workforce development through service.
Operationally, broader integration of civic and community engagement into the university’s academic curricula will leverage the expertise of NU professors and strengthen the mentor-mentee relationship between faculty and students. The interdisciplinary focus on addressing identified community shortfalls is designed to foster systemic change in the Western New York region and beyond.
“The IMPACT model will provide our students with a deeper understanding of Niagara University’s Catholic and Vincentian mission to serve those most in need and the importance of lifelong civic engagement,” said the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University. “With St. Vincent de Paul and the Vincentian mission as our inspirations, students, working side by side with faculty and administrators, will learn how to identify problems, take action and see themselves as agents of change, thus mobilizing a 21st century workforce that is prepared to recognize and address long-term community needs. That is ‘The Power of Niagara University.’”
The IMPACT model requires students to construct projects that they will implement over the course of their academic careers, and that make quantifiable differences in areas of community need. The phases of progression include freshman discovery, sophomore planning, junior implementation, and senior reflection and assessment.
Projects will focus on regional needs that are identified annually by program administrators in consultation with community stakeholders. However, students will not be restricted from undertaking service projects in their hometowns or that are of special interest to their respective academic program or area of study.
To ensure long-term commitment, alumni will also be surveyed on the status of the impact that they are making in their communities after graduation.
Dominic Hannon, a communication studies major, performed community service at Family & Children’s Service of Niagara through his involvement with Niagara University’s Vincentian Scholars program. He said that his experiences have set the stage for him to continue helping individuals in need long after graduation.
“The integration of service learning into my academic courses and the service that I’ve been involved in during my four years here have built a strong foundation of belief that I want to continue to serve and live the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul through the Vincentian mission,” he told the audience during a breakfast reception Wednesday. “After graduation, I will continue my commitment to make an impact by giving back to my community.”
Niagara draws inspiration from St. Vincent de Paul, who organized his contemporaries to respond compassionately to people’s basic needs. Continuing this tradition, Niagara has a long history of serving the local, regional and global communities.
Sister Beth Brosmer, executive director of Heart, Love and Soul, acknowledged the wide-ranging contributions of the university’s campus community to the food pantry and soup kitchen, and lauded how its members do so in a way that honors the legacy of St. Vincent.
“The most important aspect of following Vincent is being present to each guest as a precious individual made in the image of God,” Sister Brosmer said. “Vincent urges us to wrap our actions in compassion, respect and care, letting go of judgments that cloud relationships. The way of Vincent is a challenging way, but rich in rewards for volunteers and guests.”
For its dedication to service learning, Niagara University has been included on the President’s Honor Roll for Community Service every year since its inception, and recognized with the Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement. In addition, national publications like U.S. News and World Report annually praise the efforts that the university’s students and employees make on behalf of those in need.
“Community Missions is grateful to Niagara University for its commitment to community service, from the top down,” noted Christian Hoffman, communications and development manager for Community Missions of Niagara Frontier. “We have some great pictures of Father Maher serving lunch in our Community Kitchen – hairnet and all. I think that serves as a wonderful example for all of the Niagara students, faculty and staff that service goes deeper at Niagara University. It’s not just something that is talked about in classes, or at orientation. Service truly is a way of life at Niagara University, and its impact is felt throughout the community.”
Photos by Michael Freedman and Megan Held, a junior education major at Niagara University.