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GWU students live up to first lady's volunteer challenge

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

At the start of the school year, first lady Michelle Obama gave George Washington University a challenge: If the campus community logged 100,000 hours of volunteer service by May, she would speak at the school's graduation ceremony on the Mall.

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Time for FLOTUS to start drafting her speech. On Monday, the university will announce that it has met the goal, with nearly a month to spare.

More than 3,800 students, faculty, staff and even trustees took up the call. They dug their Foggy Bottom neighbors out of the snow after winter blizzards, spent spring break helping to rebuild New Orleans, gave a D.C. high school a makeover, led a Brownie troop, helped low-income families navigate government agencies to obtain critical services, taught Sudanese refugees in Nashville and organized a prom for the elderly in the District.

"We thought we could do it, and we did it," said Helen Cannaday Saulny, the school's vice president for student and academic support services. "It has been really inspiring to see our students, faculty and staff embrace this challenge."

Obama congratulated the university in a statement: "GW has demonstrated an amazing and ongoing commitment to public service. I look forward to addressing graduates on May 16. You've earned it!"

The first lady is also scheduled to give commencement addresses at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on May 8 and Anacostia Senior High School on June 11.

Obama issued the challenge while she and President Obama were participating in the first National Day of Service and Remembrance on Sept. 11. On that day, about half of GWU's freshman class volunteered around the District, painting a Habitat for Humanity house, collecting trash, weeding the Anacostia River watershed and assembling care packages for U.S. soldiers.

With the help of school officials, the first lady decided on a target of 100,000 hours. In the previous school year, undergraduate students had volunteered about 60,000 hours. The deadline: May 1.

The challenge was coordinated by GWU's Office of Community Service, but students, faculty and staff entered their hours on the Web site VolunteerMatch, which also helped them find projects in line with their interests. There were few limits on what types of service would qualify.

"Everyone is doing service," said student body president Julie Bindelglass. "There are so many service projects that are going on that it's hard to keep up with all of them."

In the past few years, the university has sought to make public service a key part of campus life. Some students spend their spring or winter breaks volunteering in other cities or countries. Such "alternative" breaks have become popular. This year, the school sent more than 300 students to 13 domestic and international locales, Saulny said. Fewer than 200 participated in seven trips last year.

Although the university trusts its students, Saulny said, officials double-checked the authenticity of about half of the hours before announcing victory. And although the school reached its goal, students and others on campus said they plan to continue volunteering this month. The final tally of hours and participants will be announced to the graduation audience, which is expected to exceed 25,000.


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