What student apathy?
Kathy Kotecki, Office for Community Involvement, 896-5815
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
Through elbow grease and a commitment to doing the right thing, an increasing number of MSU Billings students are engaged in making a difference in the community
MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — It’s laying down some sod for a needy family. It’s a fresh coat of paint. It’s a few moments of attention for the homeless. It’s a decorated cookie for a child. It’s a recycling project.
By all appearances, student activism is taking on a new look at Montana State University Billings.
And while it’s not focused on politics or protests, it is about making a difference. Done quietly in a roll-up-your-sleeves, dirt-in-your-fingernails fashion, a variety of Billings organizations have benefited from student engagement.
Armed with cellphone contacts, boundless energy and leadership savvy, organizations such as Student United Way are ensuring students are engaged with the Billings community in new ways. Since classes started in September, nearly 170 people at MSU Billings (mostly students) have put their free time to use in a myriad of ways.
Through “Service Saturday” projects, students and staff have teamed up to lay new sod at a Habitat for Humanity home, did some deep cleaning at Family Services, Inc., painted some rooms at the Montana Rescue Mission’s Women and Family Shelter and decorated cookies for some children who live there.
“We just have a lot of great students this year,” said Kathy Kotecki, director of the Office of Community Involvement at MSU Billings, noting an increase in the student participation this year. “We have a lot of really good freshmen who are sticking with it.”
Kotecki’s office is home to AmeriCorps and other volunteer leaders who work on a variety of projects to engage students in the Billings community. They have been involved in everything from blood drives to painting projects to Martin Luther King observance and diversity projects.
Kotecki said freshmen typically join student organizations in the fall as a way to be involved in college life, but often move on to other things. This year, many of those students have continued their interest — and they are bringing friends.
“When it starts out, it’s about becoming involved in something, but eventually they see the see the broader picture and importance to the community,” she said.
Through continued connections in the community, word of mouth or increased evidence of good work happening around Billings, students continue to show up for service projects. Involvement – which typically tapers off in the fall – has remained strong, Kotecki said. And at the first Student United Way meeting in January, there were nine more students than had been involved in the fall. The group now boasts more than 30 members.
“There is some great leadership going on,” she said.
One of those students is Eric Braun.
A 2001 graduate of Billings West High School and a junior human services major, Braun is no stranger to good works. He did some work with the United Way of America in 2005 where he assisted in Hurricane Katrina clean-up and recovery efforts in Biloxi, Miss.
“I came back in 2007 to do something different and the seed was planted,” he said.
A gregarious man with a love of life, Braun has taken hold of the Student United Way and guided it to new areas. Through his leadership and Kotecki’s guidance, what was once known as the Student Volunteer Club was given a new identity. The United Way name and reputation is strong in every community in the country, Kotecki said, and when students graduate, they can take their commitment to involvement with them.
Sporting white “Live United” T-shirts, students have fanned out across Billings in the past few months on a regular basis. Many faculty and staff at the university have joined the students in service this year as well. Whether they are painting a room or laying sod, the lessons for students are moving beyond simple volunteerism and into service. Kotecki is working with various faculty at MSU Billings to fold service projects into their curriculum. She hopes that eventually service learning will be as integral to a college education at MSU Billings as entry-level math and English.
“We are getting them engaged in service and they see the value of it and how it works with their studies,” Kotecki said. “They have the right mindset.”
Pam Sanderson, who works with the United Way in Billings and is the organization’s connection to MSU Billings, said the renewed student-led campus engagement has been great to see. Through their work, students have been able to gain skills that they would not necessarily get in the classroom, but also get connected with their community, Sanderson said.
“Making those connections is what is important,” she said. “The student leadership has really stepped up.”
For some students, like Kelsie Hanson, service is a natural progression from their high school years. She worked in an animal shelter at home and was in 4-H for 11 years. After graduating as an honors student in Chinook last spring, Hanson came to MSU Billings not only to lay the academic foundation for a career as a pharmacist, but also to be a part of something bigger than herself. As a freshman, she has been involved in virtually every community service project through Student United Way.
“I really like doing community service, but it’s not the same like in high school,” said Hanson, noting there is a broader cross-section of people involved in the MSU Billings. “In college, when you’re involved with groups like this, you all passionate about the same thing and projects are not so overwhelming.”
Hanson, who carries a warm smile and a can-do attitude as easily as she does her backpack, has embraced her involvement in Student United Way and is now one of the recruiting chairs.
For Braun, it’s easy to understand the excitement.
“The look on peoples’ faces when they get involved as volunteers and in service is indescribable,” Braun said. “To bring that here and have others have that experience is great.”
To find out more about Student United Way or other projects in the Office of Community Involvement, call 896-5815.
FIRST PHOTO ABOVE: MSU Billings student Kelsie Hanson, a freshman from Chinook, works on laying sod during a Service Saturday project in Billings this past fall.