Around Campus

Launching into service

Nearly 60 incoming first-year students at UNC-Chapel Hill chose to participate in a service-learning program this summer to support local nonprofit organizations.

Two students kneel over wooden board in front of tiny homes
Kirti Patel and Sahil Sethi pull screws out of scrap wood at Wildwood Farm as part of SLI: Launch 2020.

Kirti Patel, a Carolina first-year from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is sweating over a long wooden board. He’s trying to pull out a bent screw from what would otherwise be scrap wood, but in this context is recycled wood: destined to eventually become part of someone’s new tiny home.

A weed trimmer whines in the background. Next to Patel, first-year Sahil Sethi is hammering on a different piece of wood.

“I’ve made things with these tools, but this is the opposite. We’re trying to take everything out,” Patel commented.

On this hot August afternoon, Patel and Sethi are working on Wildwoods Community Farm, on four acres just west of Chapel Hill. At Wildwoods, community members live in tiny homes (dwellings built on a small scale) and work together on shared garden beds and a chicken coop.

Sethi and Patel are two of 58 incoming first-years at UNC-Chapel Hill who chose to participate this summer in the Service-Learning Initiative (SLI): Launch through APPLES Service-Learning, a program of the Carolina Center for Public Service. SLI: Launch is a three-day student-led introduction to service-learning and the local Chapel Hill-Carrboro community held the week before the start of the fall semester. Students participate in diverse service opportunities such as working at Wildwoods, facilitating kids’ camps at Kidzu Children’s Museum and sorting clothing and toys at Caring and Sharing Center.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Sethi, a Greensboro native. “In the past I’ve mainly done environmental work. I’ve never really done volunteer work directly helping people, because sustainability is more about helping the planet as a whole. So it’s been good, being exposed to a new kind of volunteer work.”

Patel said he liked that SLI introduced him to local nonprofit organizations.

“I wouldn’t have known about this place, or about the garden we went to earlier, or Habitat Orange County,” he said. “We get all these connections, so that in the future if we want to do any of these things, we know who to reach out to, we know where to go and things like that.”

SLI site leader Michala Patterson, a senior biology and global studies major, said the students had been doing a variety of work on the farm that day.

“There’s a chicken coop over there that we helped clean out. We’re helping with all the mulching and the weed infestation that’s happened … We have people doing composting, and I’m doing power washing.”

Patel added that he liked the social aspects of SLI, too.

“We get put with a lot of likeminded people,” he said. “When you’re going to a college with 18,000 of us total, it’s nice to meet some people before everything starts.”

SLI co-chair Divya Kumaresan, a junior statistics and economics major from Raleigh, said she was inspired to co-lead SLI this year because of her positive experiences participating in SLI as a first-year and serving on the SLI planning committee in her sophomore year.

“I think a real big part of service is learning about different communities and the struggles they face,” she reflected. “We try to offer through SLI programs a diverse array of different service opportunities, like food insecurity, mental health awareness, poverty/homelessness and sustainability. Engaging in service helps you learn about problems you might not have already known about.”

The SLI program also includes a spring iteration called SLI: Engage. Applications for SLI: Engage 2020, which is open to all undergraduate students at Carolina, will open in the spring 2020 semester.