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The impact of service at Carolina

Community service is part of our culture at the University of South Carolina. Whether on the local, state or even national level, you can volunteer at shelters, schools, parks and more. Last year, students volunteered for more than 500,000 hours.

Many of our community service efforts are facilitated by the Leadership and Service Center on campus. If you have a service idea, leadership coaches can help you achieve it.

Sociology major Cory Alpert utilized the Leadership and Service Center to launch a relief effort during South Carolina's "thousand-year flood" in October 2015 and a voter registration drive in 2016.

Tell us about discovering a need and how you could serve your community.

I had just been back on campus for a few weeks [after studying abroad in Australia] when we had the greatest natural disaster that Columbia's ever faced. We had Hurricane Joaquin bearing down and flooding the entire area. I posted on Facebook saying I wanted some friends to volunteer with me at a local relief shelter. I went to bed expecting 10-15 people to sign up. I woke up to a list of over 2,500 people. I knew I needed to do something. By the next day we had 5,000 people signed up and ready to help.

How did you get started coordinating the relief efforts?

We moved into Russell House and started coordinating this effort that suddenly spanned the entire region. We worked with the federal, state and local governments to make sure our efforts were going where they were needed the most. We were the largest volunteer corps in the state. Our efforts were the reason why groups like the National Guard or Red Cross could do their jobs using our volunteers.

Describe your efforts with Lead the Way.

A few months later I started something called Lead the Way, a voter registration civic engagement campaign. I formed a team committed to the idea that students want to get involved in politics and learn how their government operates, but just don't know how to make that happen.

We worked with a New York tech startup called Turbo Vote that mobilized all 50 states plus D.C.'s voter registration systems. It took the form entirely online. We were able to work with the university to pay for that system and the tools we needed. We went from students wanting to registered to vote to registering nearly 10,000 people across the entire country, including eight partner schools and all eight USC campuses.

How did the Leadership and Service Center help you accomplish your goals?

The people who work [in the Leadership and Service Center] are called leadership coaches. They are there to develop you as a leader and as someone who engages in your community. They help you connect with resources and act as mentors and advisors. I've been really lucky to have two leadership coaches, one for each project I've worked on. When I was working on Flood Relief, my leadership coach made sure we stayed on track and had access to all of the resources we needed. For Lead the Way, my leadership coach was also able to get us access to resources we needed to make sure we were doing things the right way. But beyond that, he helped us foster new ideas and be creative and inventive.

Having someone who I can walk in and have a conversation with, and who's there to help foster my ideas is really important. It's something that makes USC a unique and special place.

What lessons have you learned as a result of your service?

Engaging in community service projects teaches you that you can change things and that you can give back to your community. To me, that is so much more important than any resume builder or any line on an application. Being able to say you were part of something that helped thousands of people recover from a flood, or that you were able to help people get registered to vote and have their say in an election of monumental importance, is what really matters. Even if the work you're doing seems small, it can have a huge impact on people's lives. Those are the things that stay with you.

My memories of USC aren't the times I had to stay up way too late working on a paper. They're the times I got to stand on Greene Street carrying water to a shelter where people needed it. They're the times we stood in dorms asking people if they were registered to vote and getting them involved in an election. 

What advice do you have for future students?

The University of South Carolina is a place where, if you have an idea that you think can change the world, they're willing to invest in you to make that happen.