Bennion Center gives students the chance to meet people, get involved

Although the U is a primarily commuter-oriented school with a reputation of being isolated from the rest of the Salt Lake Valley, the U makes options available to students interested in community involvement.

There are myriad ways for students to participate in the betterment of their community, all the while enriching their college experience and broadening their horizons to include a realistic understanding of how cities address problems.

One of the most direct and comprehensive routes civic-minded students can follow is to get engaged with the Bennion Community Service Center.

The center is home to more than 40 student-run organizations, with focuses ranging from environmental to social and political to health consciousness.

The center operates in the spirit of its founder, Lowell Bennion, whose philanthropic efforts benefitted innumerable members of the Salt Lake community. Much as Bennion worked with community members to distribute food and services, the center works with community agencies to offer meaningful volunteer opportunities to U affiliates.

“One of our goals is to involve students in community services so that they are inclined to be involved throughout their lives,” said Shannon Gillespie, an adviser within the center and a service-learning coordinator. “We are hoping that students grow and learn from their experiences with the center so that they can continually be involved in their community.”

The center offers yearlong service opportunities as well as more specific seasonal programs. Some activities offered during the summer include geographic restoration efforts, involvement with the Special Olympics and helping build the literacy skills of children.

“The opportunity to spend time with an issue that interests you is wonderful,” said Curt Larsen, program manager for the center. “The center makes it easy to become exposed to a whole new world.”

As a commuter campus, many U students find it difficult to establish connections between their time at school and their time away from it. The U’s geographic location on the upper east side of the city is beautiful and self-sufficient, but it does not always make it easy to integrate campus life into social life.

The center can help.

“There are many students interested in becoming involved, but many don’t know how,” Gillespie said. “The center makes it easier to get involved. It is a direct connection.”

Community involvement can do much to enrich a college education, too.

“Students can meet people with similar interests and broaden their horizons to include different perspectives of what life can be like,” Gillespie said.

“[Involvement with the center] can give students a friend that is 95 years old,” Larsen said. “It can give students a little more depth than they had before and it can teach them about a variety of local issues.”

Incoming students often experience difficulty meeting people socially. This difficulty is exaggerated for students who come from out of state and do not necessarily have any ties to their new school. For incoming U students, the Bennion Center can even act as a tool for social introductions.

“Getting involved with the community is a great way to get to know people,” Larsen said. “It can help you get your footing on campus and help you meet people with similar interests.”

However, while the center is perhaps the most accessible and longest standing service entity on campus, it is not the only civic-minded center.

“We don’t claim to be the only opportunity for leadership and involvement,” Gillespie said. “We are one of several.”

In fact, one of the center’s goals is to shift some of the on-campus service focus from itself and onto newer, more comprehensive service organizations. One such organization is the recently established University Service Council, which is comprised of representatives from various U organizations, all of which have a vested interest in helping the community at large.

“We have our sights set on getting the whole campus involved,” Gillespie said.

Interested students can visit the Bennion Center in Room 101 of the Union or call 581-4811.

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