Trading in textbooks for toolbelts: Local college freshmen giving back to community

Roanoke College's unique new student orientation

SALEM, Va. – Instead of icebreakers, Gavin Oaks and his new classmates at Roanoke College are breaking a sweat.

The freshmen just moved in Saturday, and they've already been put to work. But it's not homework. They're working on the R House.

For the past 14 years, the college has partnered with Habitat for Humanity of the Roanoke Valley to build a home for a family in need right on campus.

"I was kind of surprised," Oaks said. "It's definitely a really big team-building activity, building a house. You can't say you've done that with most of your friends, but I think it's awesome that they're giving us the chance to do this already."

Junior Callie Hammer said it's not your typical freshman orientation.

"It definitely broke the ice in a better way than, like, tossing a ball and saying your favorite color," Hammer said.

The college's director of civic engagement, Jesse Griffin, loves seeing students' reactions.

"This is just so weird to them. They're like: 'What are we doing? We're building a house in a parking lot underneath a gigantic tent?' They're so surprised, and then the surprise then leads to sort of excitement," Griffin said.

About 630 freshmen and transfer students, plus faculty and returning students will work for three days securing joists and framing walls before moving the house to the city of Roanoke.

"Like you would move a modular home," Griffin said. "We jack the house up, and trailers slide underneath, and we take it to the permanent location."

The work doesn't stop there. Students can volunteer every Saturday until the home is finished in December. They also have other service opportunities all year long.

"Being part of a community and being part of service to others and service to the people you live around is really important to us," Griffin said. "So, we try to start our first-year students off with a really concrete example of, this is what we're all about."

Students are building a home, building bonds with their peers and building a sense of commitment to serve their community. 

"I think by the end of this, everyone's going to be really happy that we did this and that we made a difference here," Oaks said.

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