UWM reflects on a year of community service

When Esmé Barniskis, a UWM English undergraduate, entered a foreclosed house as part of her service learning experience, she didn’t expect to rethink poverty.

The house was going to be remodeled by ACTS Housing, an organization that helps Milwaukeeans own homes. The previous tenants had been evicted, but Barniskis did not expect to find their belongings in the house.

“I never expected a piano to be in a foreclosed house, because I saw it as a status symbol,” Barniskis said. “The family photos, the children’s toys and the piano made me question my notions of who can get evicted. It made me consider the people who had lost their home. It’s made me a better researcher, but it’s also made me a better person.”

Barniskis and other service learners shared community-impact stories at “Building Bridges for a Better Milwaukee.” UWM’s Center for Community-Based Learning, Leadership, and Research and Ex Fabula, a Milwaukee-based organization that produces storytelling events, hosted the event to celebrate the 66,000 hours of community-based scholarship, partnerships with community organizations and volunteer work logged at the university during the 2016-’17 school year.

In September, Chancellor Mark Mone challenged UWM students, alumni, faculty and staff to complete 60,000 hours of community engagement to commemorate UWM’s 60th anniversary. At the ceremony, the university received a congratulatory mayoral proclamation for accomplishing its goal.

Tomi Vandergriff, a program assistant at the International Institute of Wisconsin, recalled two UWM service learners who worked with a family from Myanmar that the institute had resettled in Milwaukee. Normally, the institute would not have assigned service learners to the family, because one family member was a blind man.

“At first, the students were really frustrated,” Vandergriff remembered. “It was difficult for them to teach him English, because of his visual impairment. But when we checked in with them each week, they were making progress.”

The man learned English quickly, because of the students’ frequent visits.

“Now when we have special cases like that, we make sure to assign service learners for extra help,” Vandergriff said.

In recognition of individual contributions to the challenge, the university gave awards to mobile application developer J. Dietenberger; Paula Lucey, a nursing clinical instructor; nursing student Alyssa Recknagel and the athletics department.

Between stories, Megan McGee, Ex Fabula’s executive director, observed, “These stories remind us that each hour of service is a very real, unique experience.”

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