My BackYard helps students establish roots at University Park

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Every year more than 8,000 first-year students come to Penn State’s University Park campus to begin their college careers. Their residence halls and apartments become their homes away from home and the green spaces around campuses their backyards. For the second year, those green spaces and their new community became a bit more meaningful for a group of Schreyer Honors College students participating in the My BackYard service project.

According to Donna Meyer, director of student programs at Schreyer, “My BackYard is a partnership between the Schreyer Honors College and the Office of Physical Plant (OPP) aimed at creating an opportunity for students to learn more about the Schreyer mission, how they can be leaders where they are, and to gain a better understanding and appreciation of what others do to keep ‘the backyard’ looking its best.”

The event is just one part of SHO TIME, a three-day orientation program for Schreyer Scholars kicking off the fall semester. This is the second year the project has been held, with the Schreyer Honors College Student Council and OPP partnering in 2016 to host the first My BackYard project.

The service event not only provides an opportunity for first-year Schreyer Scholars to invest in their campus, but also for OPP employees to engage with students and contribute directly to their student experience.

“OPP not only provides a service to the institution by stewarding the University’s facilities, we also contribute directly to the student experience and academic success by utilizing our facilities as a living lab for learning,” said Steve Maruszewski, assistant vice president of OPP. He added that programs like these introduce the students to what OPP does and encourages them to help OPP steward the facilities both directly and by bringing issues to OPP’s attention.

This year more than 160 students volunteered for My BackYard, joining 15 Schreyer Honors College and OPP employee volunteers. The teams fanned out to eight different sites, completing projects with a focus on sustainability. Project sites included off-campus locations such as the Clearwater Conservancy and Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, as well as numerous campus locations such as the Arboretum, Penn State Student Farm, the Old Main south lawn, McAllister Building and west campus. Activities ranged from planting trees and installing ground cover to assisting with storm water mitigation and projects focusing on food security issues.

For OPP employees, it is an event they look forward to after a busy summer construction season and an opportunity to interact with students.

“I have always looked forward to the students coming back, particularly because it gives us a chance to see how they use and interact with the newly completed projects on campus,” said Tom Flynn, OPP landscape architect. “Participation with the My BackYard project brings that student engagement even closer to home for me. I am not sure there is a clearer path toward really appreciating what we do and who we do it for than to go out and get your hands dirty with a bunch of our students.”

Matt Wolf, supervisor for grounds maintenance, echoed Flynn’s sentiments. “I like to see the students take pride in their school and campus grounds. I want them to be able to come back to Penn State in the future and show their family and friends how great a place it is. The crew members also enjoy working with the students and showing them what they do on a regular basis.”

For all involved, there is a desire to see the program continue to grow in the coming years. Drew Myers, a junior Schreyer Scholar majoring in math and philosophy, says he hopes the program grows beyond an afternoon of service to a continued effort during a student’s four years on campus. “If everybody left this place better than they found it, then little by little we would see improvements in our town, and an environment would be created where the students are invested in its growth," said Myers.

The My BackYard program is just one of many examples of Penn State students working together to make a positive impact, as well as collaboration between academia and OPP. It supports both OPP’s core values of service, stewardship and safety and supports the University’s mission of teaching, research and service.

“There are so many hands and hearts that want to do something to make a difference,” said Meyer. “In many cases, it comes down to creating opportunities for the students to take the initiative, lead and accomplish more than we ever expected them to achieve. When a project provides them with an opportunity to collaborate, learn and serve, it creates a win-win for all involved.”

For more information on the My BackYard program, contact Meyer at dlh15@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 11, 2017