Whitman pairs community engagement with education through volunteering

Alexa Grechishkin, Campus Life Reporter

For Whitties lamenting the infamously isolating “Whitman bubble,” volunteer organizations offer the perfect opportunity for engagement that gives students the chance to understand Whitman as just one part of the broader Walla Walla community.

The Community Engagement Coordinator at the Career and Community Engagement Center (CCEC) Christian Gachet explained that reframing traditional understandings of volunteering is central to the college’s progress.

“[The college] changed the focus [to] community engagement. That means not just going to the community and working there like one [or] two hours and then going back,” Gachet said. “[Volunteering] really involves intentionality, and we refer to this as the triangle of community engagement. It involves education, being reflective and being present.”

Senior Kali Natarajan, leader of the student organization Stream Team, began her volunteer journey at Whitman working with the Food Justice Project. Her positive experiences with the organization led her to a leadership position on the Stream Team, which partners with the Walla Walla Conservation District and Tri-State Steelheaders to remove invasive species from the land and replant native vegetation.

Natarajan explained that the connections between the Stream Team’s work and academics at Whitman make it an enriching educational experience that takes tangible action to preserve the local ecosystem.

“It is geared towards a lot of environmental work … so it is a good opportunity to take what you’ve learned in the classroom, see it in the field and actually engage with the material,” Natarajan said.

Senior Devon Player, Community Engagement Program Leader and a founder of the Food Justice Project, explained that dialogue is crucial to effective community engagement. The Food Justice Project works with the Blue Mountain Action Council to assemble boxes to be handed out at distribution events and fill backpacks with supplemental food for children attending Walla Walla Public Schools.

Player mentioned that the recent Food Justice Project event with Ladonna Sanders Redmond helped to supplement volunteer actions with critical knowledge about how injustices surrounding food arise in the first place.

“We wanted it to be about food access and insecurity, but the topic of food justice is a lot bigger than that,” Player said. “[It is important to be] thinking about things like environmental sustainability, anti-racism, anti-oppression work and everything that impacts our food system and has created the type of inequality that we see.”

For students hoping to broaden their horizons, volunteer opportunities facilitated by Whitman include the Buddy Program, Adopt-A-Grandparent, Story Time, Whitman Friends Program, Food Justice Project and Walla Walla Stream Team. Depending on their personal interests, students can work with community partners ranging from the Walla Walla Public Schools to the Odd Fellows Home.

“The volunteer groups are so welcoming and so diverse that there is something for everyone. Just getting yourself out there is a great way to start volunteering,” Natarajan said.

Gachet explained that the most important thing about volunteering at Whitman is the impact it has on your perspective of Walla Walla.

“It’s a valuable experience to start to think about these issues that affect your life and you didn’t realize it. You may start to feel more welcome in Walla Walla,” Gachet said.  

Starting as a student volunteer can lead to bigger engagement with nonprofit organizations in the future, or it could even inspire passion for a new area of advocacy.

“I’ve been able to connect with the Walla Walla community in a lot of ways I don’t think I would have been able to if I hadn’t engaged in those programs,” Player said. “I learned a lot about what I see myself doing in the future, and I definitely see myself working with community-based organizations after Whitman, so [volunteering] gave me a way to explore some of my interests.”

Whitties hoping to get involved can visit the CCEC’s website to find contact information and descriptions of all the volunteer opportunities available. By connecting the dots between passion, volunteering and education, Whitties can find themselves on a new and exciting journey of engagement.