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Students navigate the world of service-learning during COVID-19

EN Photo by Julia Bonavita.

By Nina Mendes
News & Features Editor
Students are adapting to the ever-changing environment around them. The new normal features lectures on Zoom and socially distanced classrooms.
The way students obtain service-learning hours has adjusted, as well.
According to the Director of Community Engagement Justin Fitzgerald, volunteering virtually with an FGCU community partner became popular over the summer and was well-received by students.
Many organizations are offering both in-person and online options for students to attain their hours during this semester.
“I think the same amount of need is there [in our community], but it’s just grown in some areas and decreased in others,” Fitzgerald said. “I think students are really finding ways to enjoy this new setup and are looking for the silver lining.”
The FGCU Food Forest is one example of an on-campus community partner that offered both in-person and virtual volunteer options.
Students could participate in virtual fundraising events over the summer and receive hourly credit for their service. Students were asked to collect mulch, gardening tools, organic soil and more through hosting donation drives.
The Food Forest will reopen to students, staff and the community on October 5, providing service-learning hours to in-person volunteers.
Food Forest Coordinator Zoie Kassis is involved with organizing the opening and will guide students as they help with general garden maintenance.
“If possible, I believe that service-learning is far more beneficial when it is in person [rather] than virtual,” Kassis said. “It is important to have both options, though, so students who are not on campus or who have health concerns can still be active in the community while staying safe.”
The Food Forest will only accommodate five people at a time to abide by social distancing protocols.
The site briefly opened at the beginning of the semester, but in-person volunteering has been postponed until next month due to safety concerns.
Virtual volunteering opportunities with The Food Forest are not available at this time; however, Kassis said it is being considered.
The university’s 80-hour service-learning requirement puts emphasis on volunteering to enhance students’ experience while at FGCU.
According to Fitzgerald, it can be much easier to obtain service-learning hours virtually than in person during this time.
That may be true, but does volunteering from home devalue the service to some degree?
“I think all service is valuable, and it shouldn’t matter where students choose to work from,” FGCU Senior Carly Smith said. “Although I completed all of my service-learning hours in person, I am happy students now have the option to volunteer virtually if it’s what they are more comfortable with.”
Smith volunteered with Miles Ranch in North Fort Myers for five months before COVID-19. The ranch promotes Equine-assisted psychotherapy & learning, where horses play a critical role in providing therapy services.
“The pandemic has caused everyone to adjust, and I don’t see a problem with students adapting,” Smith said. “I think students can still be a meaningful volunteer, even if it’s from their bedroom.”
Overall, The Office of Service-Learning & Civic Engagement views the switch to virtual volunteering as a positive change.
According to Fitzgerald, more students have chosen to donate their time to an organization that matches their academic goals and personal interests while still meeting community needs.
Transportation to get to a volunteer site is no longer an issue for students, as well.
It is a personal choice of whether students will continue to volunteer virtually or donate their time in person again.
“I want to say how proud we are of the students and their ability to be nimble and flexible,” Fitzgerald said. “We are hearing so many great stories from our community partners and students of how they have reacted to the circumstances. We feel very fortunate to be doing the work we’re doing.”

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