Most college students spend the last week of their summer vacation hanging out with their friends, enjoying their last home-cooked meals and relaxing before the beginning of the hectic fall semester. Forty-nine incoming Sacred Heart University first-year students and 14 upperclassmen leaders decided to spend their vacation differently – by serving their new neighbors in the Bridgeport community.
Community Connections is a pre-fall immersion program where students live and work in the Bridgeport community for the week before the start of classes. Students are housed at the Urban Center of St. Charles Borromeo Parish on the East Side and at Golden Hill United Methodist Church in Bridgeport’s downtown. Organized by the Sacred Heart University Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning since 1996, Community Connections allows incoming first-year students to provide assistance to agencies and outreach programs across the city. Students work on projects as varied as tending a community garden in a housing project, helping a public school teacher set up her classroom for the first day of school, sorting donations at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission warehouse and building bookshelves for a new home for the Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County. More than 1,700 hours of community service were performed by the group throughout the week.
“This year’s freshman class were fully engaged with the Bridgeport community,” notes Matthew Kaye, director of the Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning. “It was inspiring to see their dedication and willingness to be a part of our community.”
The program also provides an opportunity for the students to immerse themselves in the culture of Bridgeport. This year, students got salsa dancing lessons, spent their Sunday afternoon at Captain’s Cove Seaport and explored the downtown area with a historical scavenger hunt. “Community Connections allows not only the freshmen but also the upperclassmen leaders to see how many opportunities Bridgeport can offer us in our four years at Sacred Heart and even beyond graduation,” says student leader Shaylee King ’17.
The students also got an in-depth look at some of the most pressing social justice issues that affect the members of the Bridgeport community. Each evening, a panel of experts addressed the student group to discuss such issues as immigration, fair housing, senior care, the criminal justice system and substance abuse and addiction. The speakers included Sacred Heart faculty and staff as well as representatives from local nonprofits and social service agencies. “It is important for our students to be aware of the issues of inequality that many of their neighbors in Bridgeport face on a daily basis,” says Kaye. “This provides a more rich educational experience that deepens the impact of their service work.”
The first-year students begin their career at Sacred Heart University with an immersive experience that allows them to connect with other incoming students as well as upperclassmen mentors, who provide much-needed assistance in navigating their college careers. “The freshmen need extra support, especially in their first semester. Participating in Community Connections gives them the advantage of meeting new people and having a sophomore, junior, or senior as a mentor is a great resource for them,” says student leader Stefanie Falcone ’18.
For more information on the Community Connections program, please contact the Office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning.