Partners in a Caring Community

By Marla Pierson Lester

While pursuing a double major in management and marketing at Baylor University, Katie Stefani remained a dedicated volunteer through sorority service projects and with kids' clubs through the University's Baptist Student Ministries. Yet, an upper-level management course her senior year offered a fresh view of how she could use the skills Baylor had given her to serve the community.

As part of the coursework, students evaluated the organizational structures of service-oriented non-profits as well as of for-profit companies. "You think of the business world, and you think of the non-profit world. I never would have connected the two before that," says Stefani, who graduated in May.

Making that link between a field of expertise and applying those skills in the community is a vital part of Baylor 2012, the University's 10-year Vision.

That effort spills into Waco, in this specific class project and in a growing concentrated effort bringing the classroom into the community and integrating students' visions for their lives with community involvement.

Ultimately, dean for University Ministries, Todd Lake, says it may draw more students into community service on a deeper level and spur more creative projects that use students' skills, academic concentrations and willingness to serve.

The push draws from a goal outlined in the 10-year Vision to guide all Baylor students, through academic and student life programming, to understand life as a stewardship and work as a vocation.

"Traditionally, we have talked about missionaries and ministers being 'called,'" Lake says. "But Baylor wants to make sure that every student knows that God has given them certain abilities and is helping them develop those abilities at Baylor so they can be called into a life of service."

So, students - called first to a relationship with God - are also called to be teachers, businesspeople, engineers and more. "That's a very different model than saying that God calls pastors and ministers, and everybody else is off the hook," Lake says.

Chapel sessions have begun to reflect the shift, with Lake bringing in Nobel Laureates, ballet dancers and internationally renowned politicians and journalists, all living out their faiths while demonstrating excellence in their fields.

"We want our students in Chapel to see that whatever their passions are, there's a way God can get a hold of their lives," Lake says.

While Student Missions encourages this push, vocation is not the sole domain of any one department or project. It permeates areas from career counseling and academic advising, to Chapel and Orientation programs.

"We're really trying to weave this into everything we do," says Steve Graves, director of student missions and ministries, citing that chaplains who live in residence halls emphasize vocation and calling in their discussions with students.

Lake speaks excitedly about how the concept can be integrated in the classroom. "You build into various classes the opportunity to serve in the community," Lake says.

Examples include students studying sign language, setting up programs in Honduras, pre-med students giving time in medical settings and, like Stefani, business students using their skills to evaluate non-profits.

Assistant professor of management Rick Martinez, who taught Stefani's class, has long talked about vocation and calling in his classroom. "I don't consider what I do to be a career or profession. I consider what I do to be a ministry. This is something I make clear in my classes," Martinez says. "I hope my students don't go out into the world as businesspeople most of the time and Christians when they remember. I want them to go out into the world as followers of Christ."

Last year, with Graves' encouragement, Martinez began to explore how he could use classroom activities in a way that meshed service with learning.

"Baylor has a long history of learning and of service. There has been less of a history of service learning. Students have long gone out armed with a paintbrush and a ladder," Martinez says. "Now what we need to do is turn it up a notch-and not just be sending out servants but servant leaders."

Jessica Truglio, coordinator for community service, is excited about the possibilities. "I don't know that we can really understand what the impact is going to be," Truglio says. "But I can say that it's going to be positive." The volunteer base is tremendous. Truglio notes the total of more than 154,000 volunteer hours reported last year, a total that reflects only those organizations, classes and individuals which have recorded their hours with her office. "Almost all student organizations have some kind of volunteer component," she says. Service is a tradition and "definitely something Baylor students pride themselves in."

For her, the 10-year Vision and its emphasis on vocation and stewardship bring more clarity to what is already happening. "It's the same thing we were doing. It's just getting them to think about it from a different perspective, on a deeper level," she says. And that may well mean a deeper impact for Waco.

"For the people who are not involved right now, it's hopefully going to motivate them to try things out," Truglio says.

Matching one-time experiences with reflection gives those experiences more meaning and may inspire students to integrate service into their lives on a more regular basis. "I definitely have seen them shift and see a bigger picture," she says.

Truglio has noticed how forging the right connection can trigger a deeper and longer-term commitment. "With a greater understanding of vocation, there's going to be a greater opportunity to meet long-term needs," she says. She recalls a student accounting major who had been involved with service projects through organizations. When he began volunteering at a non-profit to help families with tax preparation, the long-term connection took hold.

"He realized he could do a little bit of training and be the expert that these families looked to," she says. "It was something he was passionate about and gifted in."

As students are molded and inspired in these ways, Baylor professors such as Martinez are shaping activities and projects that will focus on what is most effective for non-profits.

Meanwhile, students who have caught a passion for service can continue to weave their lives around that, in Waco or elsewhere.

Graves adds, "We think it's going to impact the world as Baylor grads go and live differently."