Jennifer Shurley shares her passion for service with students
By Angela Nixon
From Mexico to the Appalachian Mountains, Jennifer Shurley spent a lot of time throughout high school, college and beyond helping a variety of people. Now, as Clemson’s associate director of civic engagement, she’s providing resources to students so they can have the same life-changing experiences.
Shurley, who grew up in the Greenville area, first got involved in community service through her church youth group. She traveled with the group on mission trips to places like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and it was these trips that would lead to a lifelong passion for community service.
“Those trips were pivotal experiences for me,” Shurley said. “I was able to see some abject poverty and an entirely different culture, which taught me about a whole other side of life.”
After high school, Shurley went to Presbyterian College where she earned a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1992. During college, she participated in a variety of service activities, including working with children at the Thornwell Children’s Home in Clinton, tutoring adult basic literacy and helping with Special Olympics. Her sophomore year, she spent the summer in Mexico, coordinating youth mission trips for Presbyterian Church USA in the border town of Nuevo Laredo. In the next two years, she held similar jobs in small towns in the Appalachian Mountains through the Appalachian Service Project. She and other college student volunteers worked with youth groups who would come to do service work, such as construction and home repair.
“Working in Appalachia was very similar to being in Mexico, minus the language barrier,” Shurley said. “Poverty that looks so ‘third-world’ is right here in our backyard. It’s shameful to think that we have that level of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. Those college experiences were a wake-up call for me that we all need to do our part to alleviate suffering and fight for justice for those whose voices are often unheard.”
That experience led Shurley to take a full-time volunteer job with the Christian Appalachian Project for a year after graduating from Presbyterian. She worked in Martin, Ky., as an adult literacy tutor, going to clients’ homes and teaching basic reading and math skills. After that, Shurley began her career in higher education with a job teaching a class about literacy issues at Converse College. Since then, she has held positions coordinating community service and volunteerism at Samford University in Alabama and at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. In 1997, she earned her master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Alabama.
Wanting to get back to her hometown, Shurley took a position with the Greenville Literacy Association. Once again, she was working with adults, teaching them reading and other life skills.
“Our students came from a wide variety of backgrounds. There were some people you would never in a million years think had trouble with reading,” Shurley said. “It’s often a systemic failure that lands people where they are. Many people just fell through the cracks during school.”
Shurley said she started to miss working in the college setting, however, so in 2002 she took a position at Clemson coordinating the University’s community service grants program. That program has since ended, and Shurley’s job has evolved — she now works in the Gantt Center for Student Life, part of the Division of Student Affairs, where she oversees and helps coordinate civic engagement and service activities.
“Clemson was already a very active campus with a lot of service work going on, but I was the first person hired to spend full-time energy on service,” she said.
Shurley saw room for growth, as there were very few resources for students to learn about volunteer and service opportunities. There was also no way to track what type of service was being done, how many students were doing it and the number of hours students were volunteering.
One of the first things Shurley did was create a database of community partners and agencies that wanted volunteers. This gave people one place they could learn about all the volunteer opportunities in the area. Shurley started an email listserv to keep people informed about upcoming service opportunities. She also works to find opportunities to bring community partners to campus, such as the Volunteer Fair in the fall and tabling sessions throughout the year, which give students a chance to interact with representatives from nonprofit and community agencies.
Shurley also has played a role in establishing other service-related programs on campus, such as the Alternative Break Program, a student organization that travels on service trips during fall and spring breaks; an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer position, a full-time volunteer who works on campus to help coordinate student service projects; and the Summer Orientation School Supply Drive, in which incoming students bring school supplies to summer orientation to be donated to area school districts. The school supply drive, now in its sixth year, brought in more than 10,000 items this summer for local at-risk children.
Clemson is now tracking all its service activities with the new ClemsonCounts, an online tool where organizations and individuals can log their service hours. It also will allow students to easily document their service experiences through a Service Transcript that is currently in the works.
“Tracking this information will help us see where students’ interests lie, where the gaps are and how we can use the expertise we have on campus to benefit the community,” said Shurley. “It will help give us a big picture of what Clemson students are doing to help others.”
Clemson has received national recognition for its commitment to community service. In 2005, Clemson was named one of Princeton Review’s “Colleges With a Conscience,” and the University has been listed on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for four consecutive years.
Something Shurley is particularly proud of is the way Clemson students are quick to step forward to help others in crisis situations, such as natural disasters. This past May, she used her connections to friends in Alabama to help quickly coordinate a trip for 34 students and staff to travel there to help victims of the deadly tornadoes that ravaged the state in April. It was the first time in several years that Shurley had traveled on a service trip.
“When you’re in a crisis zone like that, there’s no planning, no predicting, everything changes moment to moment. We had to stay flexible and be willing to do whatever needed to be done at the moment,” she said.
The group spent two days helping homeowners clear debris from their property.
“It was very sobering to see all of the destruction,” she said. “Most of the service experiences I’ve had in the past have been based on poverty and other social issues, but this was much different. Natural disasters know no bounds. Anybody and everybody is susceptible. The million-dollar homes are destroyed right along with the smallest shacks.”
Shurley said her overarching goal is to help students learn something from their service experiences. She said students are always willing to donate their time and efforts toward service, but she wants to see them go deeper than that.
“We need to help students learn more about issues and about how to make a sustainable and lasting change in society,” she said. “Our students are going to graduate with a great education. They need to think about what they can do with that advantage that will help the betterment of all of society. They need to understand that the choices they make in their daily lives impact others. If we can help students adopt that as a mind-set habit, then we’ve accomplished something.”