Giving Back – Community Service at Strathmore University

In 2022, the students and staff of Strathmore University contributed over 800,000 hours of volunteer labour to various causes around Kenya. This is a mindboggling number, the kind that is impressive whichever way one looks at it. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of it is that it’s known in the first place.

Strathmore University maintains a fully-staffed department dedicated to service to society. Known as the Community Service Centre (CSC), this office coordinates the university’s service to society efforts, and keeps track the relevant numbers. In 2022, its budget rose to 1% of the university’s total budget, a significant amount.

According to Luis Borallo, the department’s director, the CSC’s mission is to avail the university’s resources, which include everything from the state-of-the-art lecture halls, to the library, vehicles and, most importantly, the university’s staff and students, for initiatives of service to society.

It’s a tight balancing act, since the university’s other activities must not be compromised. But because the department exists and is in constant contact with all levels of management, as well as the students, the university has notched some remarkable achievements.

This is how Macheo, one of the CSC’s flagship programmes, works. For several years now, high school students from low-resource backgrounds have been using the university’s facilities for after-school activities on Saturdays, under the tutelage of volunteer undergrad students; several of the first beneficiaries of the programme are themselves now undergrads, and are giving back by tutoring upcoming cohorts.

It is also how, by incorporating a mandatory course of service – known as Service Based Learning – in the curricula of all undergraduate programmes, the university gets each student to spend 200 hours during one of their long holidays tending to the sick, teaching the young, feeding the hungry or keeping public facilities clean, among other such tasks of service, in different parts of the country.

It is how all the students who wish to give more than the required 200 hours – a surprisingly large number of them, according to Mr Borallo – get to jump onto the university’s buses and vans on weekends and during holidays, and head out to schools all over the country to mentor students; or to prisons to offer classes, and company, to the state’s unfortunate guests.

It is how the university has been able to elicit donations from various companies, like a paint company that recently availed several containers of paint and the expertise of its professional painters, who then worked with volunteer students and staff of the university, to repaint the buildings of a primary school in Dandora, Nairobi.

The CSC’s work offers a grand spectacle of smile-inducing goodness, a full accounting of which would turn this article into a lengthy book. Perhaps such a book will one day be written. For now, however, the listed examples handily illustrate the wide scope, and degree of organisation, of the institution’s spirit of service to society.

Importantly, this state of affairs is not incidental, a benign by-product of good intentions and the availability of resources. Instead, it has taken dedicated focus and work over many years. From its earliest days, the university has been fundamentally oriented towards the dignity of the human person and the development of Kenyan society.

In many institutions, service to society tends to fall within the context of corporate social responsibility, defined by sporadic acts of corporate citizenship. This is all well and good, but Strathmore hopes to pioneer a more holistic approach, by taking the concept to a whole new level.

At Strathmore, service to society is an active field of endeavour, a core part of the university’s identity, intrinsic to and inseparable from the rest of its mission. It is one of the four pillars of the university’s corporate strategy, right alongside its academic and research ambitions.

This means that, in addition to the meticulously measured and optimised efforts shepherded by the Community Service Centre, all units within the university make an effort to mount their own initiatives, most of which are never even reported to the CSC.

For the admissions office, this means actively working with high schools to nurture talent and improve performance. For the sports department, it means seeking out bright students who qualify for sports scholarships. For staff members, it means signing up to provide personalised mentorship to students.

Service to society, in short, pervades every aspect of life at Strathmore University. It’s in the fresh air and shiny floors, in the clean bathrooms and tasty meals. It’s everywhere and in everything. Against this backdrop, the number with which this article opened gains new significance. It is not the only achievement, but one measurable aspect of a complex and deep ecosystem of good deeds.

This year, the Community Service Centre aims to lead the university to contribute more than a million volunteer service hours. And, as things have been going, Mr Borallo teases, they are likely to achieve that goal well before the year ends.

And they are just getting started.

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