Project SERVE: student-run service center

March 24, 2015

When students work in the community, their leadership potential can shine. Student leaders can be found doing everything: from starting new projects to finding new ways to solve old problems; some student leaders have redefined service on their campus while others spearhead recruitment of hundreds of new participants. At the University of Michigan, student leaders simply do everything.

With 280 student leaders coordinating hundreds of community service and community engagement efforts, Project SERVE is one of the largest student-run service centers in the nation. The two staff advisors do, however, confess some level of confusion about their role within the university. The university tries to thank us for the excellent work that gets done. It is difficult, they explain, for a school to recognize that it is not professional staff, but its own students who lead a program as extensive and successful as Project SERVE. But they do.

Ten years ago, the university allocated funds for a service center for students, not necessarily run by students. Initially the office provided the typical information and referrals for students wishing to engage in activities to serve the Ann Arbor community, or those seeking careers in the nonprofit sector. Students who came in with their own suggestions were urged to turn them into projects. Quickly, the center built up a base of programs coordinated and led by students.

Staff soon found that when students pursue their own ideas, the projects that develop are richer and the commitment to them deeper than when staff invent projects. The natural hands-off tendency of Project SERVE staff soon developed into a student-run center. A core leadership of sixty students runs the office itself. The student leaders develop goals for the year and write the center s mission statement; they also recruit student volunteers and balance the department budget. The leadership is split up into six teams responsible for coordinating all events, ongoing placements, the largest breaks project program in the country, and other activities out of the center.

Every issue addressed by students from youth to elderly, arts to AIDS is coordinated, and was in most cases originally initiated, by student leaders. Students who might not have originally seen themselves as leaders receive encouragement and support from those who do. Students who are involved hold one another accountable for getting things done, and discuss strengths and weaknesses in order to improve practices.

The two professional staff work help by engaging in activities to bring out the leadership potential in students: providing clear feedback; placing trust in students; and discussing various theories and styles of leadership with students.


From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy


University of Michigan - MI, Michigan
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