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Transforming Students

Volunteer center coordinator helps students expand their worldview through local and global service

Most people enter the workforce knowing that you have to spend a few years in the trenches before you’ll rise up to your “dream job.”

Natalie Magnus landed hers — coordinator for the Center for Volunteerism and Social Action at the University of Idaho — straight out of college.

And she has been pinching herself ever since.

“I often wonder how I got so lucky,” said Magnus, 25, who has a master’s degree in student affairs administration from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

Magnus came to UI in October 2013, and her enthusiasm and energy have helped propel the Center for Volunteerism into a period of growth.

“I think she’s a very talented young professional who has really brought a lot of energy into the program. She has a lot of passion for her work and for helping to develop students and the volunteer center,” said Greg Tatham, assistant vice provost for Student Affairs. “There’s that saying about talking the talk and walking the walk — she does it.”

Magnus knows firsthand the impact that people in Student Affairs can have on students. She entered her undergraduate years at Wisconsin thinking she wanted to be an occupational therapist, but discovered the field wasn’t the right fit. In the meantime, she had become active in athletics and Greek life, and eventually UW-LC’s Leadership and Involvement Center.

“I realized, ‘this is what they do as a job’ — and this is what I get most excited about,” Magnus said.

The Center for Volunteerism and Social Action is in the Department of Student Involvement. Its mission is to help students become engaged in the community through hands-on learning and service opportunities. The center’s flagship program is the Alternative Service Break (ASB). Each winter and spring break, the center takes teams of students and advisors on regional, national or international trips in which the teams help fill a community need, such as building houses, disaster recovery, building gardens or installing solar panels.

The ASB program began with one trip to Seattle in 2001. Since, students, faculty and staff have traveled to 25 states, 12 countries and five continents. This spring, students in nine teams had a regional focus, with ASB trips serving communities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The trips — which the center subsidizes with funds it receives from student fees — can be life-changing experiences for the students, exposing them to ideas and people they may never get the chance to see, Magnus said.

“The main thing is expanding your worldview,” she said. “The world is big — and you’re a part of it.”

That big world also includes the Palouse community and fellow students. Local service is a big part of the center’s mission. The center has more than 95 partner organizations and can help connect students to a group that works in their interest area.

“We can be a great resource to get them connected to what they’re looking for, what they’re interested in,” she said.

The volunteer center also coordinates the Vandal Food Pantry, which consists of six cabinets across campus stocked with food and grocery bags. Students are allowed to take from the pantry, no questions asked, Magnus said. The program helped start conversations on campus about the challenges of going to school and being unable to afford groceries.

Other yearly efforts include “The Writing on the Wall Project,” during which a blank wall is installed outside the Commons. Students write on the wall hateful and hurtful words, and then people take turns breaking the wall down. The center also coordinates the Books for Africa program, which sells used textbooks to support literacy programs.

Magnus estimates 1,700-2,000 students volunteer through the center every year, dedicating either a few hours for a daylong project or two weeks for a winter service trip.

She’s hoping for growth. Right now about 40 percent of the students who apply for ASB trips are turned away because of space constraints.

“I’d like to get to where anybody who wants to go, can go,” she said.

She also wants to get more students involved locally.

“We know there’s so much good that can be done in our local community. We’re the land-grant institution here — we can touch our local community,” she said.

Part of that growth is a new fundraising effort to help grow programs, cover the costs of trips and pay for scholarships for students who want to go but perhaps can’t afford it.

“We’re at a point now where we feel that we need to try to raise some of our funds to grow the program rather than rely on student fees,” Tatham said.

The investment is worth it, Magnus feels.

“The students who give up their break to do service — they truly care,” she said. “They genuinely want to make a difference. It’s really exciting to see that in the younger generation. They can make a big difference.”

Plus, serving can be really fun.

“We’ve never had a student come back and say they wish they hadn’t gone,” Magnus said.

Tatham is excited to see what more Magnus will accomplish in her time at UI.

“I’ve seen her make a difference from the time she stepped foot here,” he said. “I’ve also seen her grow in the position and learn in the position — and that’s what you always want to see in a staff member — that ability to transform as they transform students.”

UI students during an alternative service break trip to Nicaragua.
Natalie Magnus and senior Samuel Herman work to build an improved cookstove in a rural Nicaraguan home as part of the Alternative Service Break program last winter in El Balsamo, Nicaragua.

Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing


University Communications and Marketing

Phone: 208-885-6291

Fax: 208-885-5841


Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts