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Helping Make Service Happen

Natalie Furlett of the Center for Student Involvement helps lead volunteer activity

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June 6, 2011 | by Stephen Anzaldi
Natalie Furlett is associate director of Northwestern's Center for Student Involvement. Photo by Jim Ziv

The instinct to get involved, give back, do good or however you label it plays an increasingly larger role in Northwestern curricula thanks in large part to the University’s Center for Student Involvement.

“Community service is a great way for students to learn about themselves and the community they’ll call home during their college years,” said Natalie Furlett, associate director of the center. “They get a lesson in the realities of Evanston and Chicago, and this is especially meaningful to our students, who come to us from all over the world.”

The center is among several campus units that help nurture students’ community service activities. It provides advising and leadership training through projects ranging from national (Alternative Student Break and Habitat for Humanity) to local (Campus Kitchens and Freshman Urban Program). See sidebar for Evanston projects.

Furlett talked with Northwestern News editor Stephen Anzaldi about the nature of community involvement at Northwestern and how Evanston organizations can connect with student volunteers.

What are some of the trends in community service at Northwestern?

Two volunteer activities especially are trending upward these days. Microfinancing, which has become huge in the non-profit industry, provides targeted loans to get small businesses moving. And consulting helps organizations with problems they can’t tackle on their own.

What do students like about service?

Working in the community requires leadership and team-building skills. Plus it provides the chance to switch gears. Volunteers tell me, “I’m working so hard in school, but it’s nice to turn the focus away from myself to others once in a while.”

How does the University help make service a priority?

The institutional dedication is obvious. But sometimes little things make a huge difference. For example, we participate in the Equestrian Connection project, which provides therapeutic horseback riding for children with mental and physical disabilities. It’s located in Lake Forest. So there’s no way we’d be able to get volunteers up there — or to many places in Evanston for that matter — without the vans we lease through the University’s motor pool.

How does volunteerism fit into student recruitment?

A dialogue begins with the earliest contact. Even our campus tour guides are trained to discuss outreach resources and opportunities. We find that most high school students have service ingrained in them. They’re coming from places where it’s strongly encouraged, if not required. When I talk with prospective students, more often than not, they want to discuss the viability of continuing projects they began in high school. Ninety-five percent of the time I tell them they can plug into a similar program we’re already running.

How do you match volunteers with community needs?

First, we’re happy to partner with the city by using VolunteerEvanston.org as our first stop when searching opportunities for a volunteer. And when I participated in a community meeting recently, for example, someone said to me, “I have no idea how to network my office computers. Can you help me with that?” I couldn’t tell him off the top of my head, but I know students are working in computer science. That’d be easy for them. Students also are adept at using social media tools. And organizations always are looking for help promoting themselves better. We’re always trying to leverage the specific talents of each individual. In other words, we easily can put a person to work stuffing envelopes, but if he has accounting skills we’d rather have him helping with the books.

Several people or units at Northwestern work on similar projects. Can you characterize the nature of decentralization as it relates to volunteerism?

I’ve come to see it as a positive because it creates so many different access points through which to get involved. A particular student might never find the center. She might never find a group officially recognized by our student government. But she might volunteer through her sorority, for instance, and that’s wonderful. Northwestern’s fraternities and sororities do so much great work in the community. They don’t need to go through us to do that.

What can community groups do if they need student help?

I encourage people to contact the Center for Student Involvement at 847-491-2350 or visit us at norris.northwestern.edu/csi/.