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On September 11, 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama challenged students at The George Washington University to perform 100,00 hours of community service. If GW students, faculty and staff met the goal, the first lady promised to speak at the University’s Commencement on May 16, 2010.
Partnering with VolunteerMatch to sign up for volunteer opportunities and track their progress, the students at GWU have risen to the challenge and are involved in countless service projects throughout the D.C. area.
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You can't really major in volunteering, but if you could your schedule might look a lot like Christine French's.
As a senior at the George Washington University, French is president of the Human Service Student Organization as well as the Teach For America chapter at her school. She also serves as Coordinator of Intervention and Cultural Services at the University's Office of Community Service.
In recent years she has volunteered at Martha's Table, an organization that helps at-risk families, and My Sister's Place, which helps domestic violence victims.
And for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), French currently works as a volunteer hotline operator, listening to and helping to steer victims toward the resources they need to survive.
French's volunteer curriculum doesn't stop over the summer break, either. Back home in Omaha, Neb., she can often be found at Conference for Inclusive Communities, an interfaith agency that helps high school students develop tools to fight injustice, discrimination, and hate.
In May 2010, French will graduate with a B.A. in Human Services, but she's already received the equivalent of cum laude honors in volunteering. In 2009, she and four other students at GWU were honored with the prestigious Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, given annually for dedication to public service, outstanding leadership, and contribution to the local Washington, D.C. area, where GWU is based.
Clearly, if the future of service can be found in our schools today, Christine French is already demonstrating what it will look like.
This year, French is involved in a campus-wide effort to complete a service and volunteering challenge from First Lady Michelle Obama. If the students can report 100,000 hours of volunteering by graduation, the First Lady has promised to speak at commencement. Recently the school announced that it was nearing the halfway point, putting a springtime sprint to the finish line within reach.
As French tells it, her commitment to volunteering is no surprise. Growing up in a Catholic family, service and volunteering were ingrained in her from start.
"I remember my mom driving me to the retirement home when I was in eighth grade to play UNO and Bingo every week," she recalls. "It was so much fun."
The power of volunteering really hit home when she attended a four-day event put on by Conference for Inclusive Communities to help high school students unpack and examine prejudices. Deeply impressed by the organization, French signed up to help out at future events. Since then, she says, "My life has been deeply enhanced by service."
With so much going on, French acknowledges that her schedule makes it hard to do work in traditional volunteer roles -- a sentiment many busy students might be familiar with. Luckily, as a RAINN hotline operator, she was able to tailor her service to both her schedule and her interests.
"I work on their online hotline doing crisis intervention, which gets to be pretty emotional some times," she says. "I love the hotline since it allows me to volunteer literally whenever I am free and to make a real difference in someone's life."
Volunteering with RAINN has also helped French to discover strengths that might have been hard to find sitting in class. For example, she vividly remembers a three-hour conversation with a client. At the end, the grateful caller told French that she had a real talent for helping people.
Says French, "I think about that every time I log on to RAINN to volunteer."
So aside from a serious commitment to making a difference, what is it about her that makes French such a great volunteer?
"I think it's that I listen to people," she muses. "Often, all people really need is someone to listen to them and validate their feelings. We all just want human connection and to know that we are loved and valuable. That is what I can do for others, and it's more important than the fact that I am a hard worker or a critical thinker."
Looking ahead, French's instinct for serving others is going to be guiding her right into the next phase of her life. After helping GWU students get connected with Teach For America opportunities, she has herself been accepted into the program. She'll be teaching math in South Dakota.
Does this future leader have any advice to give to someone who is interested in volunteering? You bet.
"Do it!" she says. "You can never really know the full extent of your volunteer work, but it is so valuable."