For many Midlands high school students, “back to school” means back to volunteering. Whether giving sheep their shots or stumping for a political cause, logging service hours is increasingly a typical part of the high school experience.
Although some question the practice, advocates say there's potential payoff through scholarships, college admissions and the eye-opening experiences of serving others.
Nebraska and Iowa have no service-hour requirements for graduation, although some individual districts and some other states do.
Lincoln Public Schools require each senior to complete a 20-hour service project for graduation.
Randy Ernst, Lincoln's K-12 social studies curriculum specialist, said teachers introduced the requirement in the early 1970s, thinking it would be a good capstone for seniors.
Several years ago, the district added a 10-hour requirement for ninth-graders.
“We really do want to build that culture that talks about the importance of giving back,” Ernst said. Volunteering is also good for one's health and well-being, he said.
At Skutt High School in Omaha, students must serve the community through that Catholic school's Living the Gospel program. Skutt officials prefer that students engage in direct service — working with those in need — as opposed to stuffing envelopes at church.
“That pushes some kids out of their comfort zone,” said Ruth Kros a teacher and co-sponsor of Skutt's National Honor Society.
Students pick up hours in various ways, volunteering at hospitals, nursing homes and community fundraisers such as Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Kros said.
Kylie Richards, a student at Platteview High School, volunteers in Sarpy County with the True Buddy Sheep Club, which uses sheep as therapy animals for special-needs and medically challenged children.
On a farm south of Papillion, volunteers help the children wash the sheep, color their wool with washable paint and dress the sheep in silly clothes.
Through volunteering, Richards, 16, met 9-year-old Noelle Hobza, who has Adams-Oliver Syndrome. Noelle was born without a cerebellum, a part of the brain that controls coordination and movement, said her father, Dave Hobza.
“I went one night, I met her, and she changed my life,” Richards said.
Izzy Paik, 15, from Bellevue West High School, also volunteers at the farm.
She feeds the sheep, soaks their feet, tends to their injuries and gives them shots.
Paik hopes to log enough hours to qualify for a Congressional Award for volunteer public service. She needs 300 hours. She keeps careful track of hours, and her supervisor signs off on them. After high school, she wants to study veterinary medicine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Paik hopes university officials will view her volunteering as a commitment.
Seventy percent of college and university admissions officers in a 2011 survey said they prefer applicants who are consistently involved in one endeavor, not a variety of causes.
DoSomething.org surveyed 32 of the top 50 colleges identified in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking. Three-quarters of admissions officers viewed leadership as important. Only a third of admissions officers felt it was possible to have too many service hours.
Alan Cerveny, dean of academic services and enrollment management at UNL, said service hours are not considered for admission there, but they can be a factor in scholarships.
“We do tell students that we want to see well-rounded students, and certainly one of the ways in which students can show service or leadership is to be involved either in their high school, community or church,” Cerveny said.
He said he's not concerned as much about the type of service as the quality, and whether the student has made a difference.
David Duzik, director of enrollment at the private Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, said a student's service hours play a role in admissions and scholarships.
Because Wesleyan is a small university, he said, the admission and financial aid team looks at each application individually.
In the late 1980s and mid-1990s, guidance counselors were telling parents to get their kids involved in lots of things, he said. Now the university is looking for depth.
“What we do really like to see is the student who doesn't just put in 40 hours somewhere but the student who gets involved at a deeper level, that they stick with something for a long time,” he said.
University officials look for signs of increasing responsibility, he said. They look for students who start their own projects. Duzik said all types of service are acceptable, whether career-oriented, humanitarian or political.
The importance of documenting volunteer hours hit home for Kros, the Skutt teacher, when her son Grant, a 2012 Skutt graduate, applied for admission to Marquette University, Creighton University and Denver University.
“On their applications they want details,” she said. “How many hours you did, different places, all of that. Creighton — oh, my goodness! — their application was the craziest, because they wanted you to detail, from your freshman year of high school on, how many hours did you do at all the different places.”
Mary Chase, Creighton's associate vice president for enrollment, said students who tend to be interested in pursuing a Jesuit education have values that lead them to want to participate in service work.
“It is obvious to see when a student is passionate about giving back to their community through service, because it permeates the application materials,” she said.
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