It’s no secret that service is one of the pillars of Mercer. At a University where “everyone majors in changing the world,” students are encouraged to get involved in the community early and regularly, and there are many ways that they achieve that.
Mercer’s Center for Community Engagement connects Macon students with volunteer opportunities, and Lauren Shinholster is the coordinator who works behind the scenes to make that happen. The Center served more than 2,800 students through its programs and events during the 2020-21 academic year.
“Service has always been something I’ve been passionate about. I believe deeply that we have to use our gifts and talents to serve the community. I’ve always been called to serve,” she said.
In Florida, Shinholster worked with elementary and middle school students as a community educator for the bicycle and pedestrian safety program at All Children’s Hospital. Two weeks after her husband’s job with Geico brought them to Macon, Shinholster saw the listing for the coordinator of community engagement position at Mercer. She liked the idea of taking on a community educator role in which she would be working with college students.
“When I read the job description, I was like ‘This is me.’ It really spoke to my interests in public service. It was the perfect position at the perfect time,” she said.
Having served in this role for four years now, Shinholster is in charge of a number of service initiatives. She oversees volunteer efforts hosted by MerServe, the University’s student service leadership board, including events like Service Saturdays, Be a Good NeighBear, Spring Break for Service, MLK Day of Service, Lights on Afterschool and Hunger Week. Last year, MerServe hosted 32 events that attracted 1,500 attendees and resulted in nearly 1,600 volunteer hours.
MerServe members set the stage for what they want to do, and Shinholster identifies partners and ensures that work sites are safe and job tasks are appropriate.
“Ms. Shinholster and the Center for Community Engagement are the driving force behind the significant service opportunities available to Macon students,” said Dr. Kathy Kloepper, vice provost of engaged learning and director of Research that Reaches Out. “Ms. Shinholster’s passion for bringing together Mercerians and community partners for productive collaboration is clear in the incredible service contributions made throughout the year through such initiatives as Be a Good NeighBear and virtual and in-person tutoring through Read2Succeed.”
Shinholster does a lot of “matchmaking” between Mercerians and local organizations. She seeks out opportunities that are going to be meaningful to students while fitting their schedules.
Many Mercer professors incorporate service-learning into their classes, and they often consult Dr. Kloepper; Hannah Vann Nabi, associate director of the Quality Enhancement Plan; or Shinholster for advice and direction.
“I’ll get the random student that comes in saying, ‘I really want to do some volunteer work, but I don’t know where to start,’” Shinholster said. “Sometimes it’s driven by a class, so they may have some research they want to do or a project and need guidance on how to set a plan in motion. But on the other side, a lot of the (service opportunities) are coming from our community partners. They may have needs but may not have the human capital to get it done.”
Mercer’s longtime community partners include the Fuller Center for Housing in Macon, Campus Clubs after-school program, Daybreak Center, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity, Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful, the United Way and the Bibb County School District.
“For any business, you have to show off all the good that you’re doing. For Mercer, it’s authentic, genuine care for the community and our students,” she said. “They really buy into changing the world. The opportunity to do it through all the service events really allows students to walk the walk. I don’t think you get that everywhere.”
Shinholster is also involved in campus voter engagement initiatives. She has advised Mobilize Mercer for the past four years, helping members as they competed in voter participation contests, registered students to vote, and hosted debate watch parties and election night parties. Last year, the group hosted 13 voter engagement events and co-sponsored an early voting pep rally.
In 2020, Mercer was recognized for its high student voter participation during the SoCon Votes competition and ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The University was also named an Ask Every Student Commitment Campus.
Tutoring initiatives are a big chunk of Shinholster’s responsibilities, as she coordinates the paperwork involved, gets students hired and trained, and helps arrange transportation to tutoring sites. Each year, at least 200 Mercer students tutor Bibb County children in math and/or reading for the United Way’s Read2Succeed program and the America Reads/America Counts (ARAC) federal work-study program.
Tutors worked with students in 12 elementary schools and Campus Clubs this past year, and three additional schools will participate during the upcoming school year.
Some Mercer professors — including those teaching integrated curriculum (INT) 101, INT 201, life skills for first-year student-athletes, psychology, and law and public policy — have their students become Read2Succeed tutors as a service-learning aspect of their courses.
“It’s so easy to take for granted things that are part of your job, but when I hear from students how transformative an experience was for them, it makes me so grateful to play a small part in that,” Shinholster said.
Due to the pandemic, participation in Read2Succeed last year was restricted to the ARAC work-study tutors, who piloted virtual tutoring through the Microsoft Teams platform, and service-learning classes and other student volunteers, who created read-aloud videos instead.
Rebuilding and expanding tutoring services will be a major priority for the upcoming year, Shinhoster said. Service-learning tutoring will resume through virtual methods. The Center for Community Engagement hopes to hire 150 ARAC work-study tutors, and the United Way will hire a limited number of non-work-study tutors.
Another of Shinholster’s goals for the 2021-22 year is to work on changing the way the community and its needs are framed. Students often hear about the negative aspects of Macon, which doesn’t paint a fair picture.
“I’m hoping to grow our non-service community engagement and have our students go out to all the amazing events that are going on in our community. I want our students to see themselves and the community as tremendous assets,” she said.