The End of Make a Difference Day

Originally Posted on The University News via UWIRE

SLU has always prided itself on the number of volunteer hours that their students accomplish each year — specifically, the campus-wide celebration of Make A Difference Day, or MADD. MADD has been recognized as the largest day of service in Missouri and one of the largest in the entire nation— but what happens now that the demise of Make A Difference Day is upon SLU? And why did campus administrators come to this decision? According to Bobby Wassel, Assistant Director at the Center for Service and Community Engagement at SLU, Make a Difference Day was a concept that always needed tweaking.

“We want students to experience service pretty much from the time they get here” — rather than waiting months into the semester to begin — “because that’s more in-line with our vision,” says Wassel.

The new program, titled New Student Day of Service, will be “Working to Make a Difference Since Day One,” getting freshman involved in SLU’s legacy of community service from the beginning of their Fall Welcome, before classes even start. According to the Center for Service and Community Engagement, “a little over 40% of the participants [for MADD] were already first-year students,” so this seemed to be a simple transition for the day.

However, the changes to Make a Difference Day do not end there. Because SLU students have called for a more sustainable difference within the community, Wassel says that “we are also going to release the 1818 Community Engagement Grant Program, which we’re really excited about.”

This program, beginning in September, will allow for groups or organizations of students to come up with a more long-term impact of community service. Ultimately, students will apply for a grant for their community service idea and a board of students and faculty will make the final decision—18 groups will be chosen to receive a grant of $1,800 each.

Once a group is approved around mid-October, they can begin working immediately and have their project stretch until the end of the school year. The Grant Program will also allow for groups to reapply the following year if they would like to maintain their service project. The reason for transitioning over to a student-based form of community service is because “students didn’t want to be assigned a project, they want to have some agency over what they want to do” and that was “by far the biggest criticism of Make a Difference Day,” Wassel states.

Through this new 1818 Community Engagement Grant Program, groups of students are being chosen to express their creative skills to solve a problem in the community, and the Center for Service and Community Engagement is just helping to see the idea out. Whether it be a solution to help St. Louis homelessness, a program to help the hungry or even a community garden project, students are given the freedom to utilize their own voices within the program. As Wassel describes it, the beauty of this project is that it’s “a way for students to self-author what it is that they would like to do, rather than us assigning them” like MADD in the past.

In April next year, as the first year with the program comes to an end, the winners of the grant will showcase their community service project idea and how it actually impacted the community throughout the school year. “Make a Difference Day is one story and it’s really all about the numbers; there’s no real evidence of the impact it made,” says Wassel. However, with his department’s new idea for service, “these 18 groups will be presenting, and it will be 18 different stories that will show the impact of volunteering.”

As Bobby Wassel defines his personal idea of community service, he explains that doing service “means recognizing the community part of community service, and not just the service part” and that “less people should view community service as an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, but as an ‘us’ helping ‘us.’” He, along with those involved in the project, hope that this feeling of community and true Jesuit spirit will be brought out in students throughout the 1818 Community Engagement Grant Program.

However, the actual opinion that matters to Wassel’s team about the new program is one that they’ve relied on with feedback through this whole process — the students’ voices. As one freshman, Sophie Perry, describes Make a Difference Day as “this tradition has been a great experience for new SLU students to become a part of the community, but I think this new idea will be a good change for SLU’s volunteering culture.” Thankfully, due to the students’ voices, the Center for Service and Community Engagement has collected the data and heard out the changes students want to make to better their community experience as an institution — let’s hope that making a difference in Make a Difference Day will have the result that the center is expecting.

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