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New Occidental Students Learn Lessons in Community Service : Volunteerism: Freshman orientation includes two afternoons helping the homeless and hungry and cleaning up trash. Serving the public 'is a mark of an educated person,' one college official says.

September 23, 1993|DIANA S. KIM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

EAGLE ROCK — As part of their orientation to college life this fall, the 400 freshmen and more than 80 transfer students at Occidental College received the usual information about registration, counseling and campus clubs.

They also signed their names in the large "Occidental Book"--the same register their parents and grandparents might have signed--as part of the college's traditional matriculation ceremonies. And at Tiger football games, they will also learn to sing the alma mater, "Lo Triumphe."

But on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, the class of 1997 added another tradition by, en masse, rolling up its sleeves to pick up trash on the streets, cook for the hungry, clean at a homeless shelter and write lobbying letters on behalf of an AIDS center.

Orientation packets, meanwhile, included postcards to be mailed to U.S. senators and members of Congress, urging them to support continued funding for the National and Community Service Trust Act, adopted by both Houses two weeks ago and signed into a law by President Clinton on Tuesday, the day the Occidental students began their tour of public service.

The new law, which provides Americans with educational stipends in exchange for community service, was one of the President's most popular campaign pledges. Occidental and Duke University in North Carolina are the only two schools in the country that have volunteer programs as part of their orientation, according to Partnership for Service Learning, a nationwide network of colleges and community service organizations.

Occidental freshmen will not be getting any government stipend for their brief efforts. Rather, it is the spirit of volunteerism the administrators hope to nurture, said Don Simmons, director of the volunteer program center at the college.

Students at the small liberal arts institution have always had a tradition of volunteering on their own, Simmons said. But beginning this year, all entering students are encouraged to serve the public as part of their orientation.

"We believe that volunteer service is a mark of an educated person," Simmons said. "Your education isn't valuable if it can't be used to serve people. Community service has become a part of our framework here.

"They need to come to understand the importance of becoming givers in society, not just takers. That's the mark of maturity."

So for two days, members of the colleges's class of '97 and the transfer students spent afternoons exemplifying the community service spirit at Pasadena's Union Station, a primary homeless shelter and at the All Saints AIDS Service Center. Some also lent a hand at Atwater's Out of the Closet thrift store, a nonprofit funding source for the AIDS Health Care Foundation in Los Angeles County.

At the homeless shelter, the students did laundry, cleaned the premises--including sanitizing the showers--prepared and served dinner and picked up trash on surrounding streets.

"They're more than I know what to do with," said Frank Clark, director of volunteer programs at the shelter, where about 100 student volunteers swept through, putting nearly everything in the facility into a better form.

"I can do a lot with that many kids," he added with a laugh. "We dropped some off with trash bags on the streets . . . and, boy, do they have stuff to clean."

At the AIDS center, students stuffed 4,000 envelopes and wrote lobbying letters to the governor and constituents seeking support and funding for AIDS health care.

Tiffany Thrasher, 18, a student from Atlanta, has done such service work since she was 13. She said volunteering is as natural as Newton's law of physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

"If it had not been for the help from other people, I wouldn't be where I am today," said Thrasher, who was a summer volunteer for Hands on Atlanta, a local effort that is a part of Clinton's nationwide volunteer program for youths. "I'm taking up space in the world, and (I need to ask) what can I do to make it better."

Chung-Joo Min, 19, of Azusa, was the only one among his 40 or so peers at the AIDS center who came with no previous volunteering background. He said he found the new experience as educational as hitting the books.

"High school really emphasized individual work and achievement," Min said. "But learning about AIDS and other people's hardship is good, because I don't live by myself (in this world); I live with other people. . . . Occidental really encourages working as a group."

At the thrift store, students put a dent in backed-up work that included putting price tags on clothes and books, helping with window dressing and even performing a bit of customer service.

Henry Agueros, assistant store manager, said he hoped at least a few students will return on a regular basis.

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