With Hurricane Katrina’s looming 10th anniversary on Aug. 29, LSU administrators are focused on national service and the role universities play in fostering volunteerism, especially during a natural disaster.
LSU President F. King Alexander and CEO of Corporation for National and Community Service Wendy Spencer co-hosted “National Service & Higher Education: A Conversation” in the LSU Student Union Atchafalaya Room on Tuesday.
According to a University Relations news release, CNCS is the federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in service through core programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to address the nation’s most pressing challenges.
Event attendees included LSU faculty members, students and representatives from AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Sen. David Vitter’s, R-LA, office.
Alexander said the goal of the talk was to show students the value in volunteerism and to encourage them to use their time and talents in both tragedy and triumph, calling to mind how selfless service accelerated the relief process post-Katrina 10 years ago.
“A lot of agencies don’t see the value in recruiting young people. They always say the kids today ‘aren’t like we were,’” Alexander said. “I just can’t wait to hear that comment because I think this generation has never volunteered more, has never gotten involved in community service more than any generation I’ve ever seen, including my own.”
Alexander said volunteerism is a great measure of people’s commitments to what he calls the “everyday struggle” and is something LSU often practices.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in,” he said.
Spencer recalled the service efforts put forth by people along the Gulf Coast to bring relief to those areas affected by Katrina. She credits this service, which she called a “model” for the rest of the country, for today’s speedy emergency response practices.
“A big part of recovery is coordinating volunteers, which is very difficult to do, and we learned lessons,” Spencer said. “We didn’t do everything right, but those lessons we learned quickly, and we quickly corrected and now we are stronger — we are better off.”
Before being named CEO of CNCS, Spencer oversaw responses to a number of disasters, most of which were Florida hurricanes measured as Category 3 storms or higher. When Katrina hit, she taught Mississippi how to respond to tragedy based on the lessons she learned in Florida.
Forty thousand AmeriCorps and Senior Corps volunteers served from Texas to Alabama for extended time periods following Katrina and Hurricane Rita, Spencer said.
“You will create chaos if you don’t have a pathway, and that’s not good,” Spencer said. “If anything happens again, and it will happen again, we will be better prepared.”
What Spencer fears, she said, is complacency with the strides organizations like AmeriCorps have taken to improve their volunteer efforts.
“We’ve got to stay on our game, and we’ve got to use it as a powerful good and use it as a very powerful reflection of where we need to be stronger, which I know that we will,” Spencer told the audience.
Following Alexander and Spencer’s conversation, Spencer initiated a panel discussion with various LSU and AmeriCorps alumni. Among these panelists were Laura Vincent, executive director for South Louisiana’s Teach For America program and Marybeth Lima, director for Center of Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership at LSU.
Vincent said it is because of LSU that she is so involved with volunteering and is now a member of TFA’s recruitment team.
Spencer said Alexander’s integration of service into the culture at LSU is one part she most admires about the university.
“Pick some call that you’re passionate about and dive in,” she said. “There is nothing more rewarding than serving and making an impact in your community.”