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Campus Life

Showing Up Early, for Good Reason

FYSOP kicks off the school year with a record turnout

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FYSOP volunteer Hannah Rooney (SED’13) (Tom Cruise) and Naeem Ahmed (Katie Holmes), a Partners for Youth with Disabilities mentor, were the first “famous duo” to find each other in an identity game. Photo by James Miller

“Tom Cruise” and “Katie Holmes” discovered who they were in the Sargent Activities Center last week.

So did “SpongeBob SquarePants” and his friend “Patrick Star,” as well as another great pair, “peanut butter” and “jelly.”

The identity game of famous duos was part of the First-Year Student Outreach Project (FYSOP), a program that enables incoming freshmen to arrive on campus early, choose and learn about an issue, and spend three days volunteering throughout greater Boston; this year’s program wrapped up Friday. The game worked like this: about 25 freshmen, FYSOP staff, and people from the Boston nonprofit Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD) clustered in small groups with their alter egos’ names taped to their backs. No one could see his or her name, but everyone else could. With a little help from their friends, provided through clues and conversation, the small mystery was solved.

The lesson: turn to other people for help while offering insight, and learn about them while learning about yourself.

The exercise was a microcosm of a week’s worth of education, community service, and social networking, with more than 1,000 students participating. This year attracted the biggest crowd in FYSOP’s 20 years: 830 first-year student volunteers and 187 returning student staff. Freshmen divided into nine issue areas, children, elders, environment, gender focus, HIV/AIDS awareness, homelessness and housing, human rights, and hunger, attended a day of education, then fanned out for three days of community service at sites throughout greater Boston.

By week’s end, this year’s neophytes had morphed into next year’s veterans. “I really want to continue with FYSOP next year,” says Hannah Rooney (SED’13). “It’s been really eye-opening.”

Rooney, who grew up in Charlestown, Mass. — and was dubbed “Tom Cruise” for about 20 minutes on Wednesday — volunteered throughout high school. Even so, she says, she gained further insight into the challenges facing people with disabilities as a FYSOP volunteer.

Her group participated in a quadriplegic rugby game, and clambered into wheelchairs to experience the difficulty of using a bathroom in the Sargent Center. The group also worked with PYD to create birthday gift bags and cards for homeless children. “We met a lot of people who really showed us you can be comfortable with your disease, or you can let it take you down,” Rooney says.

Freshman volunteer Theja Channapragada (CAS’13) wanted to get a better feel for a possible career in medicine.

“In the medical field you interact with so many different types of people,” says Channapragada, from Springfield, N.J. “This allows me to interact with a lot of people with disabilities; it helps me reach out to them. It makes me feel good about myself and helps answer the question, hey, do I want this in the next seven, eight, nine years of my life?”

The answer, he says: yes.

The program costs $385, with scholarships available each year. Participating students are able to move into their dormitory rooms early, a FYSOP perk. For Channapragada, an early arrival is less important than community service. “I live all the way in Danielsen Hall,” he says. “There are maybe one or two other people from FYSOP. It gets a little lonely sometimes.”

But overall, FYSOP was anything but lonely. More students than ever participated, setting a community service record of roughly 20,000 hours.

“I remember the number my freshman year; they were excited that 500 students were participating,” says FYSOP program manager Brandon Polcik (CAS’09). Last year saw 600 volunteers, and this year the number climbed to 830.

“We were a little overwhelmed,” says Polcik. He and Lindsey Wyld Kotowicz (SED’07), manager of BU’s Community Service Center, attribute the growth to better publicity, a longer application period, increased volunteerism overall, and more students talking up the program during campus tours.

Polcik, Kotowicz, and 18 paid student coordinators scrambled this summer to find new sites for volunteers; last year’s 69 sites weren’t enough to accommodate everyone. And finding enough student staff also required ingenuity — Polcik says he called graduated friends to help plug up holes.

“We got in here last Wednesday, August 19, and we’ve been training ever since,” says Mickey Geraghty (SAR’12), a staff member for the disabilities issue area. “We haven’t been getting much sleep.”

“I definitely want to come back next year,” he says. “We’ll have a couple of days, I think, where I’ll get to sleep in. And then I’ll start my classes.”

Polcik’s prediction for next year: 1,000 first-year students will participate.

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