Students volunteering on Step Forward Day for School on Wheels write cards to put in backpacks full of school supplies for unhoused children. The Hub for Spiritual Life offered 14 organizations for students to sign up for that will continue to have service opportunities throughout the school year. Photos by Liza Esquibias
This year’s Step Forward Day was the first time students gathered on campus to perform a day of service since 2019, and although coupled with changes and challenges, students said they felt united with the Pepperdine community.
COVID-19 restrictions and the shift of responsibility to the Hub for Spiritual Life both played a role in how the University planned and promoted Step Forward Day this year, said Olivia Robinson, assistant director of Community Engagement and Service. Still, she said, the mission of the day has been — and always will be — students coming together to serve the community.
“One of the things that personally I just love thinking about is fulfillment of mind, body and spirit,” Robinson said. “And service is one of the few things that fits all of those areas.”
How the Day Looked Different
A small gathering in the amphitheater kicked off Step Forward Day, accompanied by a song of worship, remarks from the Hub organizers and a prayer led by the Student Government Association dedicated to those affected by 9/11.
Students, such as senior Anahi Casas Perez, said volunteers traditionally were met by balloons, food trucks, buses and a much larger group of people, rather than a prayer service.
Service has long been the basis of Step Forward Day, said Christin Shatzer Román, director of Community Engagement and Service at the Hub. The smaller group of volunteers stemmed from redirecting funds that could have gone toward taking students around LA for service but were instead spent on the projects and supplies.
“There is a lot of thought about, ‘How do you do large-scale days of service to get the most community benefit?'” Román said. “And sometimes more is not more — sometimes more numbers actually has a diminishing law of return, where more people is actually less helpful sometimes than a smaller group of people.”
Robinson said Pepperdine also limited off-campus volunteer work due to the need for tight COVID-19 safety restrictions like smaller numbers of students, vaccination compliance and mask mandates. For this reason, most organizations elected to come to campus instead.
“Many of the communities that we would be serving are more vulnerable to COVID,” Robinson said. “We want to be mindful and respectful of that, in realizing that we have a lot more outdoor space than the organizations that we would be sending students to.”
First-year Logan Meachum, who volunteered with Midnight Mission, said he felt the smaller group made it easier to get to know other students.
Senior Tasha Flaten said she did not find out Step Forward Day was happening this year until the day before when a friend who works as a Resident Advisor asked if she was volunteering.
Similarly, senior Rachel Stenz said she did not participate in Step Forward Day this year because she did not know it was taking place and made other plans for the weekend.
“As an upperclassman student, no one has reached out to me — given me information about how I could participate — so it’s been a little bit in the dark,” Stenz said.
Román said although there were tables with QR codes and information about Step Forward Day out to promote it, outreach focused more on first and second-years because the Hub believed upper-level students already were aware of the day from past experience.
Step Forward Day is meant to be a catalyst for students to continue serving community partners throughout the year, Román said. All participating organizations besides one will be offering continued volunteer opportunities, which she said the Hub encouraged students to sign up for by completing exit surveys at the end of the day.
As president of the on-campus club for international organization Days for Girls — which participated in Step Forward Day — senior Stella Zheng said she is happy students were able to sign up individually for a cause they were interested in. In years prior, students volunteered with their housing group or with other clubs on campus.
Zheng said the Days for Girls’ service project required students to be involved in hands-on activities such as cutting fabric to create sustainable period products for people who menstruate, so she feels grateful to the Hub for helping provide a safe environment for that to be accomplished.
The Regents’ Scholars also had their own service project with Food Oasis, which involved making phone calls and researching to help fight food insecurity in LA County. Alexis Olmstead, senior and co-president of the Regents’ Scholars Student Board, said she is proud of the University’s dedication to making acts of service accessible even in a pandemic.
Olmstead said she served on the executive board of her high school’s service organization. After participating in Step Forward Day as a first-year, however, her perspective on service deepened, and it became a constant in her life.
“It’s reciprocal — where you are giving back to somebody not just for the purpose of feeling good about yourself,” Olmstead said.
Connecting Step Forward Day and 9/11
This year, Step Forward Day fell on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. To commemorate the day, Robinson said the University held a remembrance ceremony after Step Forward Day activities concluded and brought in organizations that benefit veterans and members of the military.
“We also realize that, ‘OK, well, how can we participate in commemorating that day?'” Robinson said. “Realizing that there are children of many veterans on campus, as well as children of people who are deployed, that was an immediate need where we were able to say, ‘OK, we can do something there and make an impact.'”
Students, like Hicks, said the connection 9/11 and Step Forward Day both have to service made the day even more special.
“I do love that they are doing something specifically for veterans on this day, since it is 9/11,” Hicks said.
When thinking about the day sharing both the 9/11 commemoration and volunteer activities, Stenz said she thinks the two should have been separate so each could be given the proper recognition for their different purposes.
“I feel like it diminishes the purpose of Step Forward Day by almost hitting two birds with one stone,” Stenz said. “It feels like it makes each event less important because of just trying to multitask it, which feels ingenuine [sic] toward the purpose of service.”
Carrying on the Legacy of the PVC
In May 2021, the University shut down the Pepperdine Volunteer Center and relinquished its responsibilities to other departments, one being the newly created Hub for Spiritual Life.
Robinson said students who previously worked with the PVC have spoken to the Hub about feeling excluded from service opportunities because they are not religious.
“We are making sure that our staff is representative of many different people from across different faith backgrounds,” Robinson said. “We have been welcoming into our office and inviting people who are from different countries, different perspectives and philosophies and inviting them to be part of our team to be student leaders in a way where they might not be from the traditional, cliche Pepperdine background, but their heart is invested in service.”
Despite the Hub being a faith-based place on campus, Robinson said students who want to do service do not have to be tied to any religious ideals.
“Service transcends religion — service transcends philosophy, creed and beliefs,” Robinson said. “And it’s a human connection that anyone can participate in, no matter where they stand on any religious or philosophical spectrum.”
Zheng said she feels the shift in departments does not change the purpose of Step Forward Day, but she said she understands why some students may feel excluded.
“To have the service opportunities with organizations on campus — that’s a really great way to build community within our Pepperdine community,” Zheng said. “However, I do realize that having a spiritual organization run service could be a little bit discouraging to some students.”
With so much confusion surrounding the Hub replacing the PVC, said Olmstead, it upset her that Pepperdine did not consider the emotions students would feel after finding out such an important part of their college experience was being taken away.
Olmstead said while she identifies as Christian and does not personally mind the Hub running service events such as Step Forward Day, she has many friends who she said now feel deterred from engaging in those activities due to a lack of clarity on the reason behind the sudden shift.
“I would, I think along with a lot of the student body, prefer to have more communication or just an explanation as to why PVC even closed,” Olmstead said.
As a first-year, Waldon Hicks said he was disappointed he would not have the PVC to volunteer with because that was an appealing part of the University.
“I sometimes wish that service here would not always be connected to spirituality,” Hicks said. “I don’t mind doing it; it’s just that it would be cool to have an alternative.”
Step Forward Day beginning with a religious undertone reminded Hicks of why he might hesitate to volunteer with the Hub in the future, he said.
Senior Maria Chavez has a Non-Profit Management minor and has participated in Step Forward Day every year it has been in person. This year, however, she felt the sadness of the PVC no longer existing.
“I had a lot of friends that worked there and ran it,” Chavez said. “So it’s sad to not see them at all on campus this year because I would have hoped that they would have transitioned from that to the new way they’re doing it.”
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