Student-volunteers show big love to Lafayette community

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Grey-shirted Ragin’ Cajuns fanned through campus and neighborhoods surrounding the University of Louisiana at Lafayette last Saturday for a “big” day of community service.

Around 600 UL Lafayette students, faculty and alumni turned out to collect litter, plant trees, garden and assist local nonprofits, including the United Way of Acadiana and Second Harvest Food Bank, for The Big Event at UL Lafayette.

March 27 was UL’s eighth Big Event. The service project came to campus in 2013, an off-shoot of the longtime service project of the same name at Texas A&M University. The Big Event service events are now held annually at more than 100 university campuses in the United States and internationally, per The Big Event’s website.

History senior Trevian Ambroise, executive director of The Big Event at UL Lafayette, said it was a rewarding challenge to adapt the popular event to fit COVID-19 safety needs. The event’s opening ceremony was canceled to support social distancing needs, team leaders passed through a drive through in the Martin Hall parking circle to collect needed supplies and check-in before proceeding to their volunteer location, and teams, called flocks, were limited to five to 10 people, he said.

While there were limitations, the changes didn’t dampen the spirit of the day. Instead, the executive team and volunteers embraced the motto, “Volunteering where you’re at,” by encouraging students who were uncomfortable volunteering in-person or unable to attend to write thank you letters to local health care workers operating COVID-19 vaccination clinics, which will be collected next week and distributed, Ambroise said.

No matter what the day looks like, it’s about showing gratitude to the community for supporting the university’s students and strengthening the campus, he said.

“The community and the university have a long history of being united and this is a nice way to say thank you….UL is a foundation here in this region and in the state and truly we wouldn’t be our university without the support of our local communities,” Ambroise said.

One Big Event service project, the “Grad, Gather and Grow Garden” at Cajun Village, was a request from graduate students and families living in the university’s on-campus apartments for married students and students with children. Office of Sustainability Graduate Assistant Ian Naquin said his department coordinated with the UL Lafayette Graduate School to design the garden and make the project a reality, with plans to expand in the future.

Big Event volunteers loaded wheelbarrows with composted soil to fill four raised garden beds, which were planted with tomatoes, squash and other vegetables, while an in-ground garden area was filled with flowers, herbs and berry bushes, like blueberries, to serve as a butterfly garden, he said. The gardens will be a source of fresh food for residents.

Communication master’s student Prudence Mbah, a representative with the Graduate Student Organization, wiped sweat from her forehead as she used a bulb planter to dig a hole for the butterfly garden in a common area within the apartment complex. Mbah said she enjoys volunteering but has found it difficult to find service opportunities that fit with her graduate schedule, and was thrilled when she saw The Big Event promoted.

The graduate student said last Satuday was her first time gardening and she was getting tips from fellow volunteers on how to best set the plants up for successful growth. Mbah, an international student from Nigeria, said it felt special to add something beautiful to the campus that will last.

“It’s great because I’m graduating soon and it feels good to give back and know that whatever I’m doing is going to be here for a while. I go back home knowing something is going to outlive me here when I leave,” Mbah said.

Beth Giroir, executive director for student success initiatives in the Office of First-Year Experience, said the day was exciting because it was one of the first opportunities to host a large event on campus this school year and see students in-person.

Participating in UL’s Big Event shows students the power of working as a team to make positive change, she said.

“Everything’s bigger than a single person and to know there’s something grander beyond you is important. That’s going to be part of their success someday — to understand that we need each other and we need to be able to be together and work together, and that that’s all part of something bigger than them,” Giroir said.

Instilling the importance of service and philanthropy is just as much part of the UL Lafayette learning experience as academic pursuits, she said.

“We know some come in service-minded, but for a lot of students this is their first time doing service. We want them to know that to be a good citizen you’ve got to do service. Hopefully when they leave here and graduate, they continue to be service minded and continue to give back to their community wherever they’re at,” Giroir said.