Black and white photo of a group of student volunteers helping in front of the Illini Union.

In 1988, a special task force consisting of students and staff members at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, community agencies, and the United Way of Champaign County. The group studied methods of channeling university students into community service. The task force surveyed Illinois students regarding their community knowledge, involvement, and service participation. The group also investigated the impression that community organizations, in need of volunteers, had towards college students as prospects. They found that students and service organizations reported not knowing where to go on campus when they wanted to explore community service opportunities. Community agencies reported a lack of desire to work with college students based on their transient and unreliable nature, their need for more training, and students being harder to recruit than others in the community. The Urbana-Champaign campus lacked a program in place or office to act as a clearinghouse between community organizations and Illinois students, and the staff to provide readiness orientation to volunteers.

By August 1989, this dilemma would be solved by the creation of the “Green Dean” position made possible through a partnership with the Volunteer Center at the United Way of Champaign County and the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Illinois. Using state and United Way resources, the Green Dean rounded up service projects from nonprofit organizations in Champaign-Urbana and matched student volunteers in service clubs, residence halls, and sororities and fraternities with projects. The Green Dean supervised undergraduate and graduate students who took on responsibilities to engage their peers in volunteer activities. The Green Dean was allocated space in the Illini Union and the Office of Volunteer Programs (OVP) became the official hub and clearinghouse for student volunteerism at Illinois. The OVP expanded into academic courses with service curricula and partnered with cultural houses and OIIR areas on service immersion programs.

For more than three decades, our small office staff has united student groups and scholars around service opportunities in Champaign-Urbana with the help of newsletters, computer databases, volunteer interest inquiries, and strong ties with student service organizations. We have educated students about social issues and nonprofit careers through internships, volunteer fairs, service-learning pedagogy, office led service days and immersion trips, fundraising and donation drives for various causes, and partnerships with countless community agencies to meet community needs. The OVP had the strongest America Reads and Adopt-A-School programs in the nation in its first decade on campus, and we have assisted student groups such as Volunteer Illini Projects, Inc. (VIP), Habitat for Humanity, and Best Buddies to gain local and statewide accolades for their community service efforts. Though we serve with a new generation of students and community organizers, the OVP remains tied to its original work of mobilizing student engagement in volunteerism by centralizing opportunities, partnering with others to assist students in exploring community needs and contributing to causes that mitigate societal issues, and cultivating the skills and social networks that students need to actively participate in developing stronger communities.

Our history is rich and fascinating and should serve us well as we embark with students on a journey through civic life at Illinois. Together, we will explore social change through democratic engagement, philanthropy, social activism and advocacy, community relationship building and development, practicing socially responsible daily behavior that prioritizes community needs, and much more.