Almost two dozen incoming freshmen and transfer students capped off a week of service Friday morning not by lounging by the pool, but by razing one fence at the Yorktown Victory Center and building it anew in a spot where it was needed more.
The fence was the capstone project for the week-long “7 Generations” program, hosted by the Office of Community Engagement, which welcomes new students by giving them a crash course in local issues and their solutions before the students even attend orientation.
This year, the program offered incoming students the opportunity to tackle one of three issues: affordable housing, food systems or animals in the community.
“The housing thing was really big, to me, and eye opening,” Adam Tobias ’18 said. “It’s an expensive place to live, and I didn’t realize that.”
He wouldn’t have known it had his experience with the Historic Triangle remained confined to the campus, Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, he said. But his team of likeminded students gained a deeper understanding of the community’s seasonal tourism industry, employment patterns and housing challenges through the immersive program.
7 Generations, which is named after the Iroquois proverb that “in every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations,” split the students into three groups that each lived and worked together over the course of seven days.
"7 Generations facilitates students building and serving community by having their first introduction to the College come through the lens of community engagement,” Community Engagement Coordinator Elizabeth Miller said. “From the beginning they see that they are now part of the Tribe family, but they also recognize that they have neighbors and community off campus that they can build relationships with as well."
Tobias and his fellow students spent their week learning about and volunteering with local housing organizations, such as Housing Partnerships Inc. and Habitat for Humanity. They painted homes, worked on accessibility structures and sorted donations in Habitat’s ReStore.
The two other teams had similar experiences. The food systems group gained insight into what organizations are doing to promote healthy local food in Williamsburg, especially among people with limited incomes. They visited local farms and churches, met with the Salvation Army, the farmer’s market and organizations that distribute food to the hungry. Students spent more than one evening working shifts at W&M’s Campus Kitchen.
The group focusing on animals learned about how communities prioritize care of cast-off animals in terms of time and resources. They worked alongside shelter volunteers at Heritage Humane Society, visited a local therapeutic riding center and an adoption center and met with a number of rescue and adoption organizations.
But it wasn’t just the organizations that benefited from the help. Working and living side by side, the 21 students forged fast friendships they said will remain after classes begin.
Tobias hails from Chapel Hill, N.C., and knew no one before attending 7 Generations, he said. His family has a strong service orientation, which attracted him first to William & Mary, and then to the program, but he was also drawn by the possibility of meeting new people.
“Nobody from my school is going to William & Mary, and I thought this was a good opportunity to meet people before orientation,” he said. “At the beginning it’s forced, because you’re living with these people, but now we’re really close.”
And lest they fall out of touch in the next couple of weeks, they will reunite at SHOW Day – or Students Helping Out Williamsburg – on the last afternoon of orientation, Tuesday, Aug. 26.
The event extends the spirit of 7 Generations across the entire incoming freshman class. Roughly 200 students will fan out across the Historic Triangle to volunteer with diverse organizations, such as Head Start, Jamestown Settlement, the ReStore, Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding Center and local school gardens. Miller said there are still slots available for students who want to sign up.“We really love introducing our 7 Generations students to community partners we work with throughout the year,” she said. “It not only connects our students with ways they can get involved during the academic year, but it also strengthens our relationships with our partners and reflects how we are invested in community-driven social change."