Our Spartan Community

08-28-2009

At our Fall Welcome convocation for incoming students, I make it a point to explain to them what being a Spartan means in all its fullness.

It means more than developing the discipline to study well, growing the courage to become independent in habits and thought, and cultivating the wisdom to recognize mistakes and setbacks as important lessons honestly earned. It also means bringing your shield to the front line.

I say welcome, Spartans. Prepare to engage.

We’re a values-oriented institution that takes seriously its obligations as the pioneer land-grant university. For faculty, such engagement often takes the form of solving pressing societal problems using evidence-based knowledge, developed and applied in cooperation with local partners—whether in Michigan or halfway around the world.

For our students, engagement often takes the form of participating in service-learning projects or taking part in leading-edge research. When you’re at Michigan State, you have myriad opportunities to engage with and make a difference in the lives of people in the community and beyond.

We are making it easy for our first-year students to start down this road during Fall Welcome with a Fill the Bus campaign August 31 and September 1. We’re asking all of our students, returning or new, to remember others as they purchase items for the school year by buying extras and putting them on buses positioned for collections around the campus. Each college has been asked to focus on a particular group of items—food, school supplies, personal care items, for example—all of which will go to organizations that help local residents in need.

Many campus organizations routinely spur their members to give of themselves, and they do us great credit. Fill the Bus is our first campuswide effort and a fitting way to bring our newest Spartans into our ranks. It is coordinated by our Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, itself a bright point of Michigan State pride.

Started here in 1968, the center is the oldest continuously operating student volunteer program in the nation. Participation has doubled in the past five years—we counted 15,221 students in 2008–09—and the center is a big reason MSU earned a 2008 Presidential Award for Community Service.

Through the center, MSU students work with more than 370 nonprofits, including public schools, youth-serving agencies, hospitals, senior citizen facilities, and neighborhood organizations. In some cases, the community work is part of a course, such as a freshman writing class that created free promotional materials for a voter registration drive and a refugee center. Other projects are student-driven. Alternative Spring Break, for example, is a registered student organization that has helped with hurricane cleanup in Louisiana and rain forest restoration in Puerto Rico.

As we encourage community engagement, we promote deeper local connections. The One Book, One Community program, which starts this month, is another example. It encourages members of the university and East Lansing communities to read the same book and come together to discuss it in different settings. This year’s book selection—The Soloist by Steve Lopez— inspired a drive for musical instrument donations to MSU’s new Community Music School Detroit.

Foster Care Alumni Services (FCAS) is another notable channel for engagement. It’s a multidepartmental program that provides much-needed support to students and, increasingly, to prospective students who come from foster homes. Nationally, just 13 percent of foster children enroll in college and only 4 percent graduate.

We’re the first university in Michigan to offer foster care alumni scholarships, and through the work of FCAS leaders—themselves foster care alumni—MSU has inspired others to follow suit. We’ve reached down into the high school ages, too, with a foster camp held just last month to encourage and prepare foster youth for college after they leave the foster system. MSU is part of a global society and reflects it. This fall we’re enrolling 7,250 freshmen, including 700 from 47 states other than Michigan and 700 from 46 countries other than the United States. The incoming freshman class represents one of the most ethnically diverse classes in recent history. But wherever they’re from and wherever they go, the members of our community call themselves Spartans, and they represent our values and our mission through their interactions and deeds. With more than 11,000 faculty and staff members and more than 420,000 living alumni, our collective impact is epic.

We’re not the kind of institution that waits for commencement to exhort our students to make a difference. Nor are we the kind of institution that hangs back in a time of challenge. As we, like other universities, face sharply changing fiscal realities, we are dedicated to doing what it takes to continue providing opportunities to future Spartans and the lives they touch. Engage with us as we move forward. Make a change. Make a difference. And know that you are part of a vibrant, caring community that welcomes you warmly and will welcome you always.

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