Newswise — At the CSU, equipping students with essential career skills goes hand in hand with instilling a sense of community engagement—and not even a pandemic could stand in the way.

“The CSU is educating leaders of tomorrow. No matter what careers they have, we want them to be civically engaged in their neighborhoods, globally or locally. The work we do helps support civic engagement behaviors, both while they're in college and afterward.” –​ Judy Botelho, director, CSU Office of the Chancellor's Center for Community Engagement.

Learning to give back is the gift that keeps on giving. While the act clearly helps individuals and organizations in the community, students also benefit, whether they know it right away or not. The CSU offers programs, from volunteering to service-learning classes, that boost retention, build character, create networking opportunities and teach real-world skills. And students often walk away from the experience with a newfound perspective that can last a lifetime.

“Recognizing and understanding the diversity of others, having more empathy, breaking down barriers to prejudgments about groups—all those things are designed to change students' attitudes and knowledge about preconceptions and stereotypes we have in the world today,” says Judy Botelho, director, CSU Office of the Chancellor's Center for Community Engagement .

“I always say we're planting the seeds for what's going to blossom. Often students don't realize what they're gaining until much later in life when they start putting together those pieces."

Here are a few ways the CSU teaches students to lend a helping hand.


Ariel Mendez volunteered 480 hours over the past year … in the midst of a pandemic … while transitioning to virtual learning. This impressive feat earned her California State University, Fresno’s 2021 University Volunteer of the Year Award.

And you could say it all started with a Chipotle burrito.

“When I was seven, I went on a trip with my dad to San Francisco,” she says. “I saw a homeless man with a sign that read: Homeless and hungry. We had eaten at Chipotle, and the burritos are really big, so I only finished part of it. I asked him, ‘Would you like my burrito?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I feel like from then on, there’s always been something in my heart to help others.”

In Mendez’s case, helping is an understatement. The graduate student has dedicated her life to assisting those in need. It’s a calling that was fortified during a class taught by Fresno State Lecturer Adriana Cervantes-Gonzalez, Ed.D. (now at California State University, Bakersfield).

“I was going through some things in life,” Mendez recalls. “Dr. Cervantes-Gonzalez cared for students on an emotional level and would always fist bump or high-five us. She made me realize there are good people out there who care and pushed me to be better, to do more for my community.”

While Mendez has donated items such as meals, Gatorade and water to farmworkers and worked as a wildfire response volunteer, assisting unhoused residents is her true calling. “It breaks my heart when I pass people on the street in my car with the AC on and it’s hot outside,” she says.

Inspired by those feelings, she jumped into action, researching states with the largest percentage of homelessness. Mendez took to social media and requested donations of clothing and shoes. Armed with those items, snacks and toiletries, she handed them out to those in need, starting in her hometown of Tulare, California. Then it was off to Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada. Six months later, Mendez visited 10 states in 12 days to give out even more supplies.

“I would stop at truck stops and sleep in my car,” she says. “When you work as a volunteer in your community and help others, you learn and become humble. If we could all come together and help each other, we'd be this beautiful, loving planet. We need to spread love and care about each other.”


Want to help the unhoused? These are a few of the most requested items.

  • Food
  • Toothbrushes
  • Socks
  • Blankets
  • Water
  • Deodor​ant


While the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down in 2020—including in-person civic engagement—that didn’t stop the Coyotes at California State University, San Bernardino from giving back.

“We had to move our service 100 percent online, but you can still make an impact virtually,” says Camelia Fowler, administrative analyst/specialist in the Office of Community Engagement. “For 9/11, we had the campus community come together as a tribute to those lost and injured. We hosted a virtual screening of the movie United 93. For Martin Luther King Day, we asked students to upload a short video of how Dr. King was a hero to them; and we did the same type of programming for Cesar Chavez Day.”

Normally, Cal State San Bernardino students interested in volunteer opportunities can choose from a number of options, but on Coyote Cares Day in April, the campus is bustling with activity. In one area, students assist with a 5k run to benefit a local nonprofit while others pack boxes of food for families in need. Off campus, they can help paint a middle school, clean up a public park or assist at a local mission. It’s an experience that can benefit volunteers and recipients. 

“When you're doing service, you never really know what types of opportunities that will bring,” Fowler says. “You might have a student who is with the College of Social Behavioral Sciences paired with a student in the College of Business and Public Administration. It's like a networking opportunity as well.”

According to one CSUSB student: “Volunteer service taught me skills I will use professionally and personally for the rest of my life. To guide my life and lead others, I [need to] always act morally, ethically and confidently with a clear vision of the goals. I need to use my leadership skills to reach the desired aim. We must have the courage to maintain our ethics, integrity and humility to be successful in our professional and personal life.”

During the 2019-20 school year, the university completed 61,210 hours of service, which translates to a $1,833,239 economic benefit to the community. “It's good that our students are studying and taking classes,” Fowler says, “but we also want them think about how they can make their community better.”


Along with myriad volunteer opportunities, the CSU offers students the chance to enroll in service-learning classes, in which they gain real-world experience related to their field of study. “The CSU is educating leaders of tomorrow,” Botelho says. “No matter what careers they have, we want them to be civically engaged in their neighborhoods, globally or locally. The work we do helps support civic engagement behaviors, both while they're in college and afterward.”

Every discipline at the CSU provides service learning, so the available experiences range. Some students may develop and facilitate workshops or trainings, while others help nonprofits build marketing plans or create websites.

Most students partake in service learning in upper division classes, but there has been a concerted effort to also get them engaged earlier on. “We’ve had seniors who experience aha moments because of a service-learning experience,” Botelho says. “I'm happy for that, but I want sophomores to get that as well. And for students who participate in these programs, retention rates are much higher.”

Even the best-laid plans were no match for the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but true to form, the CSU was a leader in resilience, adapting its programs to meet the challenge—and that included in-person service learning. “Our faculty were phenomenal,” Botelho recalls. “In two weeks, Dr. Kevin Kelly from San Francisco State University and I put together a three-week series on taking service learning remote.

“With COVID, a big need was how to get information out to communities who speak different languages. While our students couldn’t be there in person, they could translate marketing materials.”

  1. Virginia Lehmkuhl-Dakhwe, Ph.D., University STEM Education Officer at San José State University, was unknowingly a step ahead of the pandemic. In 2019, she took on the challenge of engaging more than 200 students, mostly freshmen, in her Success in Science class. The experience prepped her for the upheaval caused by COVID-19.

“Our approach was to partner with several entities, both on-campus and off-campus, and have a subset of students conduct completely virtual service projects with those organizations,” she says. “When COVID happened, we were already thinking along those lines. In 2020, all students were tasked with working in teams to investigate a topic of interest and then create deliverables related to the organization. They addressed issues regarding COVID-19, wildfires and cancer. Students liked the flexibility we offered.

“Service learning develops a sense of belonging and connectedness to the campus,” she continues. “It also offers the opportunity for students to develop skills and realize the connections between what they're learning in their classes and the real world.”

Read more about the CSU’s community engagement efforts.