Students landscaping on campus

In a time where anything “normal” in higher education is scarce, Ohio Northern University is still clinging tightly to one of its foundational pillars of existence: service. Whether it looks like traditional community service, or something outside the box, our students live to serve others however they can, pandemic or not.

Thus far, Ohio Northern has been able to successfully implement COVID-19 safety measures and minimize risk without sacrificing a real, in-person college experience, and service is a large part of that experience. On average, approximately 1,500 students volunteer roughly 50,000 hours of community service in a given year.

In the 10 weeks since classes began, students have put on impactful service events, such as an on-campus drive-through food drive that raised $2,800 worth of food for a local food pantry. To kick off ONU’s Homecoming 2020 Spirit Week on Oct. 11, students volunteered for Love Where You Live Day, embarking on a variety of COVID-friendly service activities on ONU’s campus, such as landscaping around residence halls, beautifying outdoor basketball courts and painting murals in residence halls.

But planning events such as these has been anything but easy.

“COVID was the biggest challenge in planning Love Where You Live Day. We tried to comply with all rules while still keeping the tradition and integrity of the event,” says Isaac Schumm, one of the resident assistants for Founders Hall who helped plan the event. “Our main focus was what small projects can we do that only need 2-5 people, that can be outside or in an open area for distancing, that need service to help our buildings look better.” 

Nevertheless, students responded to the call in record numbers. More than two times as many student volunteers – over 200 in total – participated this year than any other year in the four years since Love Where You Live Day was first established on campus.

In contrast to these more traditional service projects, Ohio Northern has also played a significant role in connecting students with contactless and virtual service opportunities. ONU Religious Life hosted multiple service webinars earlier this fall semester to make students aware of such opportunities.

“Credit our students. They still want to help. They still want to serve even in this environment,” says ONU Chaplain David MacDonald. “I’ve gotten so many requests for volunteer opportunity ideas this fall that I decided to put together the webinar. The interest has been that great.”

One of the ideas MacDonald presented was mask-making, which really resonated with junior middle childhood education major Hanna Hogue. In her opinion, a service experience is enriched by the togetherness of those serving, and a mask-making project fit the bill.

The project entails collecting donations of fabric and elastic, and then hosting “shifts” in which nine students at a time can spend time together making masks. The project is a joint effort between ONU’s Panhellenic Council, Interfraternity Council, and Religious Life.

“I was motivated because I am passionate about service and my events last semester were canceled due to COVID so I was a bit persistent about making sure this event occurred,” says Hogue. “I find it so important to serve our community because everyone is struggling during this time, either with finances, mental health or just getting through the days. I find that service not only helps others but by helping others it makes yourself happier.”

Of course, these are just a few current examples, and we expect there to be even more creative ways our students will find to serve in the future. The fact of the matter is that ONU and service to others will always exist synchronously. It’s in our bones, our identity, who we are; and nothing can change that.