Turning 50 and the Catalyst for Change: Service and Community Engagement

Author: Annette Orozco Bhatia, Civic Responsibility and Student Development Coordinator, Borough of Manhattan Community College

Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) first opened its doors to students in 1963, with a mission to provide an affordable, quality education.

In the 50 years since, we have done a lot of growing and learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. We have witnessed significant moments in American history and as New Yorkers, we have learned the most about ourselves – who we are, what we can handle, how we show up for others – in the face of adversity and how to move on exemplifying our college motto, “Start Here. Go Anywhere.”

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, one of the College’s buildings, Fiterman Hall, was irreparably damaged when 7 World Trade Center fell. The building was closed due to safety issues. Because we lost Fiterman Hall, classes had to be held in our main building and in classrooms and modular spaces all over the city. There were also concerns about air quality, which meant that no windows could be opened. Despite this, we all showed up to continue teaching and learning.

Eleven years later, Hurricane Sandy hit us where we live, work and play. While necessary precautions were put into place, the campus did not expect the severe flooding, resulting in a one-week, college-wide closure. Using social media and text messaging, BMCC advised students of campus closures, where to find resources and assistance,  and when classes would resume. Communication with the college community was maintained, surprisingly, without one single letter being mailed out via the U.S. Postal Service.

BMCC 1After re-opening its doors, the college created initiatives to provide further information and assistance to those affected by the storm. What the college was not prepared for was the overwhelming response from students who desired not to receive assistance, but to provide it. A new group, BMCC Engaged in Service Together (BEST) was created to centralize existing while developing new volunteer opportunities providing disaster-related relief for many of the same neighborhoods that our students came from.

Many students jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the BEST team. Given the diversity of our population, students were already having a difficult time managing work, classes and personal obligations. To better assist in connecting these students with service opportunities that fit their schedules, the BEST Coordinator began seeking to establish official partnerships with local non-profit organizations. One of the incentives was to have organizations posted as official community partners on the BMCC Co-Curricular Transcript (CCT). The CCT provides students with an official record of their civic engagement and co-curricular activities while enrolled at the college. When paired with the academic transcript, it provides a holistic representation of the student’s experience at BMCC.

BMCC 2Within five months of Sandy, BMCC formed official partnerships with some of the largest non-profit organizations in the city –  New York Cares, 9/11 Memorial and the Puppetry Arts. In addition, BMCC was among the first cohort of colleges selected to participate in CUNY Service Corps, a City University of New York program giving students the opportunity to be paid for serving the city with non-profit organizations. Through this program, the college has been able to establish additional partnerships with community organizations throughout the city. We are currently in talks with the NYC Food Bank and Catholic Charities of New York, as well as providing a large pool of seasoned student volunteers to serve as “Hospitality Guides” for the events leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl in the New York City area.

BMCC 3Perhaps it was fitting that the college focused on providing service to the community in preparing for its semi-centennial birthday. Looking back at all the college has done, the road to recovery from 9/11 and Sandy has shown us that great things can be born from catastrophe.  Following our own experiences with both man-made and natural disasters, The Division of Student Affairs realized that we can tap into the power of the human spirit to serve others for the greater good as we continue to build a civically responsible and engaged student body.

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