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Penn State Harrisburg students want more community service to help residents' perceptions

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 3/6/19

A trio of Penn State Harrisburg student government leaders are working to improve relations between the campus and Middletown.

The campus has more than 100 student clubs and organizations, …

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Penn State Harrisburg students want more community service to help residents' perceptions

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A trio of Penn State Harrisburg student government leaders are working to improve relations between the campus and Middletown.

The campus has more than 100 student clubs and organizations, according to the Penn State Harrisburg website.

The student leaders are urging all of them to do more community service in Middletown, and throughout the region in general, they told the Press & Journal during an on-campus interview Feb. 1.

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Last October, the student leaders launched an initiative aimed at getting all the clubs and organizations to do at least one community service project each month, said Student Government Association President Justin Jones.

All student clubs must do community service, but there is no required number of hours.

“If I do one hour of community service for the whole year, I’m  set,” Jones said. “Whether that is acceptable by the university or not, I think that in order to go in the direction that we want to, that can’t be acceptable.”

Looking to lead by example, Jones and other SGA members worked alongside students from a number of clubs to build a house in Harrisburg for Habitat for Humanity.

More recently, SGA members served meals at the St. Francis Asissi Soup Kitchen in Harrisburg, and filled a large box of items that were donated to the Ronald McDonald House in Hershey.

Penn State Harrisburg students already do community service in Middletown, much of it done through fraternities and sororities.

These students volunteer at the Middletown Home and at churches, and they do a lot of tutoring for children with learning disabilities, said Riley Cagle, leader of the SGA Senate.

Increased service

But the student leaders hope to dramatically increase community service involvement.

“One of our greatest objectives when we came in was to essentially bridge the gap between the student community and the Middletown community,” said Cagle, a public policy major whose mother graduated from Middletown Area High School.

“We wanted to show the borough council that we are capable of giving back to this community, and we also wanted to show the community that we are capable of integrating into the community and making this community better,” he said.

They are planning a 5-kilometer run April 7 to culminate months of efforts in reaching out to the community. The run will start on campus, go into Middletown, and return to campus for the finish.

After the run will be a festival with music and food, making for an all-day event to foster fellowship between area residents and Penn State Harrisburg, said Jones, a dual business management and marketing major from New York City who lives in the Nittany Place student apartment complex on North Spring Street.

The student leaders are talking to businesses in Middletown about sponsorship opportunities for the run.

Half the proceeds received from registration will go to We Care, a food pantry that opened on campus last September for Penn State Harrisburg students who have trouble affording food for themselves or, in the case of adult commuting students, for their families.

The other half will go to No Kid Hungry, a nationwide organization dedicated to raising money to feed children throughout the United States.

Reach out directly

Jones, Cagle, and the third student government leader, SGA Vice President Kenny Gatten III, encourage area residents and groups who want to avail themselves of the students’ offer of community service to contact them through the Office of Student Life, which can be reached through the Penn State Harrisburg website.

Reach the office at 717-948-6273 or by email at hbgstudentlife@psu.edu.

The leaders also welcome anyone to come talk to them in the SGA office in the Student Enrichment Center on campus.

Contact Cagle and Gatten directly via email: Cagle at rgc5109@psu.edu, and Gatten at kwg9@psu.edu.

Serving the borough

Gatten and Cagle also are both active with the Middletown Human Relations Commission, a body appointed by borough council.

Gatten and Cagle serve as Penn State Harrisburg student liaisons to the commission, said Chairman Mike Woodworth, who is also vice president of borough council.

Gatten and Cagle attend commission meetings to represent the campus concerning local issues of student concern, and initiatives that the commission can assist with and partner on, Woodworth said. Gatten has been working with the commission since early 2018, Cagle started getting involved toward the end of last year.

The students worked with the commission on the Middletown Community Art Show, held in September. It featured art by Penn State Harrisburg students.

More public transportation

The students have also been working with the commission for many months to come up with a public transportation system to make it easier for students to get in and out of Middletown.

That would not seem to be a problem, given how close the campus is to town. But walking into the borough from campus is unsafe in many areas, especially along sections of West Main Street where there is no sidewalk.

“You have to walk in the streets in some parts. I think that’s a problem,” Gatten said. “A lot of students think it’s just easier to eat on campus or to get coffee on campus.”

“If it were easier to go to the Nuclear Bean, for example, they would be more willing to go there,” Gatten said, referring to the coffee shop at Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works on South Union Street.

Contrary to popular belief, many Penn State students don’t have cars because they don’t really need them, Cagle said.

They come here via the train station or Harrisburg International Airport, and catch an Uber to get to campus. If they live on or near campus, such as in Nittany Village or Nittany Place, it’s a walk of 15 minutes or less to class.

A public transportation system would be “beneficial in getting students to say, ‘Hey, there’s a bus to go downtown. I have nothing to do, why don’t I just explore,’” Cagle said.

Changing perception

The commission has also helped the students have a dialogue with Middletown police, as representatives of the department regularly attend the commission meetings.

The student government leaders are hoping this multi-pronged approach, anchored by the emphasis on more community service, can help “change the perception” many Middletown residents have of Penn State Harrisburg students as being troublemakers interested only in parties and underage drinking.

“We want to get rid of that,” Cagle said. “We’re good people and we’re really trying to help out this community.”

With 6,000 students and growing, the campus isn’t going anywhere. Neither is the town.

“We have students on campus who are actually trying to connect the university and the community for good reasons,” Jones said. “We are getting people from all over the world coming to this one small town of Middletown. In the future, if we are going to create a community where the community is OK with the university and are actually proud of what we are doing, then we have to get out there, we have to show our face.”