The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many activities across the Fairfield University campus to turn virtual, and service opportunities have been no exception. Katie Brynes, the Campus Minister for Social Justice and Community Engagement, spent the past year providing university students with service opportunities that can be done virtually while still impacting their surrounding communities.
There are currently over 50 virtual service opportunities listed on the Life@Fairfield page. Certain opportunities emphasize the importance of serving local communities which has been a focus of Fairfield since Brynes began working here five years ago.
Byrnes described how the poverty and wealth distinction between Bridgeport and Fairfield is the largest in the country.
“This gives us an important responsibility being on the Fairfield side of that to make sure we are being of service to the world around us,” Byrnes said.
She has worked to include service opportunities such as the program linked to the Reading While Remote Learning campaign. This particular program works with many students in Bridgeport to ensure they have access to the internet while learning from home.
“The education programs have provided devices for the kids,” Byrnes described. “But it’s a problem if they don’t have access to free wifi.”
Other virtual programs have allowed Fairfield students to serve communities previously unreachable, such as the Boston Public Library’s Anti-Slavery Manuscript Project. This service opportunity allows students to assist in the translation of hand-written documents so they can be included in the library’s searchable canon.
In addition to educational and academic programs, Byrnes has also worked to include a number of creative service opportunities. “Our students like to do things with their hands,” she said. “They spend a lot of time in their heads during class.”
Some of these hands-on activities include making pillowcases for children in hospitals, constructing blankets for dogs in shelters, and writing supportive letters to first responders and teachers.
Despite the large number of virtual service opportunities being offered, Byrnes has noticed a decline in student participation.
“We had about 200 students a week doing work with agencies we have worked with for years,” Byrnes said, referring to student participation before the pandemic.
She connected this decline in participation to Zoom-fatigue that students may be experiencing from their classes. However, she emphasized how virtual service opportunities still provide students with an opportunity to take a break from coursework and give back to their communities.
Byrnes also described how virtual service opportunities can be more flexible than in-person programs. Students who used to partake in in-person service programs would have to arrive at a certain location and remain there for a designated period of time. Remote service opportunities allow students to serve their community from anywhere and complete work at their own pace.
While many of the service opportunities have become fully remote, there is still one option that is being offered in-person. Prospect House, a soup kitchen located in Bridgeport, has partnered with Fairfield University for years to provide meals for the surrounding community. Prior to COVID-19, students would often aid in the preparation and distribution of dinners of Friday and Sunday nights. While this process has been reduced to the transportation of food due to social distancing guidelines, the opportunity to help is just as impactful as before.
First- year Alexander Komarynskyj recently volunteered for the Prospect House program.
“After corresponding with [Byrnes] over email about participating, she gave me all the necessary instructions for dropping off the food.” Komarynskyj said. He outlined how the experience took less than two hours and was greatly rewarding.
“I would recommend that students try this experience,” he said. “Watching Netflix for an hour and a half on Saturday morning is great, but helping others is even better!”
While Brynes is grateful for the new virtual service opportunities available to Fairfield University students, there are certain in-person programs she is excited to reintroduce once it is safe to do so.
“One of the most fun projects is a partnership with a school in Bridgeport called Bryant School,” Byrnes said. “We do a book club with the elementary students.”
The service students from Fairfield University had been reading the first book in the Harry Potter series before quarantine began last spring. Byrnes especially loves this program because it allows the college students to connect with kids in their surrounding community while also revisiting some of their favorite childhood books.
Byrnes hopes that the upcoming fall semester will allow for the return of some in-person service opportunities, along with the continuation of certain new virtual programs.