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The importance of community service

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College

Many institutions encourage or even mandate community service for their students. At Augustana, we consider service to be part of our mission to help students grow in mind, body, and spirit and to find their vocational calling in life. It is a commitment, not a mandate, rooted in gratitude – to the Quad Cities that we call home and to the many mentors, businesses, and foundations that believe in Augustana’s mission, and believe that it is vital to the health of our community. 

Sixteen years ago, when I assumed the presidency, one of the requests of the board was that we work to change the view that Augustana College was a liberal arts college “on the Hill,” insulated from its surroundings. It was a challenge I embraced, and that the faculty and staff embraced. It was our belief then, and it remains so today, that Rock Island and the greater Quad Cities can be a laboratory of sorts for students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and on campus, giving back to those who have given us so much. 

Through financial support, by creating internships and externships, by providing job opportunities to our students, and by sending their own sons and daughters to Augustana, the community has shown it believes a strong Augustana is an anchor of their prosperity, while we know that a strong community is necessary to our continued growth and success and to that of our students.   

Local businessmen and women take a genuine interest in our students, challenging and engaging them in the workplace. These relationships are more than simply transactions in which students provide labor, paid or unpaid. Our community members take seriously their role as mentors to help young people explore career and life possibilities and find their next steps. 

Our belief is that students can learn as much outside of the classroom as they can inside it. Traditionally, those important experiences outside the academic setting have been co- and extracurricular activities, but it was equally important that this definition be broadened to encompass a sense of service. 

We recognized this as the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do. The real world experience our students gain lets them leverage what they learn in class to form a lifelong commitment and connection with their own communities and ultimately, we hope, lead to finding that calling, be it social work or sports, entrepreneurship or teaching. 

Through my own community engagement, I have made a point of modeling for our students the same behavior we hope they replicate in towns far and wide. I have worked with other community leaders and the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce on Q2030, a regional action plan that has shown a genuine commitment to growing our community through equity, diversity, and inclusion. Because we cannot be successful as a community or an institution if we do not welcome everyone to the table. 

I also chair the Genesis Health Systems board and have chaired the board of the Putnam Museum in Davenport and the local Boy Scout Council. I love this community and, as an empty nester, share with my wife Jane a desire to see it flourish for the next generation, and the ones after that. 

Keri Bass, the assistant director of vocational exploration at Augustana, shares my belief that our sense of vocation comes from our history as a Lutheran institution. Keri’s job is not only important but fulfilling and fun – she spends her days accompanying students as they learn their strengths and talents and how they can put them to use to both find their place in the world and make the world a better place. 

“I help them reflect on what they’re good at and what they value and how they can use that for the general good,” Keri says. “Instead of asking what they want to be ‘when they grow up,’ I’d rather ask what problems they want to solve. That question transcends a particular career and job title and allows us to value all kinds of work, finding passions not just professionally but in service and through other people.”

We consider shepherding young people as their find their vocational calling to be a hallmark of Augustana College, and service to be an integral part of that mission.