Community service proves life-changing for Mizzou Engineering STEM Scholars

December 04, 2023

Professor Vellore Gopalaratnam, right, and Mizzou Engineering students paint the interior of a Habitat for Humanity house as part of a community service project this fall.

Want to see engineering coursework come to life? Need a way to release stress and anxiety? Want to transform your life? Get involved in community service.

That’s what a group of Mizzou Engineering students have learned as part of the STEM Scholars. The program, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a holistic scholarship that includes not only academic support but also one-on-one mentoring and volunteer opportunities. STEM Scholars have packaged food at The Food Bank, picked up trash along the Missouri River and, this fall, painted the interior of a house for Habitat for Humanity.

For senior Michael Mann, the projects have been life changing.

“Being involved in the community has given me a greater insight into the individuals around me,” he said. “I no longer look at classes as arbitrary but instead see them as intermediate steps to bettering the lives of those around me through engineering. Doing these service events will allow me to feel a greater connection to those I am helping.”

Professor Vellore Gopalaratnam intentionally made community service a key component when he developed STEM Scholars programming. He knows that volunteering alongside others builds a sense of belonging, and that’s especially important for college students. Studies have shown that students who feel connected to the community are more likely to return to school and graduate than those who do not.

Gopalaratnam also knows first-hand the self-improvement that comes from giving back. He has spent decades helping others throughout Columbia, including at public schools and community centers.

“I’ve experienced self-transformation through these service projects, and now my goal is to give students the same opportunities for growth and self-transformation,” he said. “You become aware of problems in the community, and that awareness is the first step to transformation. It allows you to be grateful. While the primary goal is to alleviate pain and suffering around us, you tend to get much more out of giving. You become distracted from your own anxiety and problems by immersing yourself in the community. These are very important benefits as a person, as a student and as an engineer.”

Now, Gopalaratnam and Mann are taking steps to spread these message beyond the STEM Scholars program.

STEM Scholars volunteer at the food bank.

Last month, Gopalaratnam moderated a roundtable discussion with engineering students, including recipients of the Multicultural Engineering Program scholarship, about the benefits of giving back. He stressed that civic service can range from manually helping out at soup kitchens or community gardens to collecting supplies for refugees or playing with shelter animals.

“Anyone can choose the environments they like working in,” Mann said. “I really enjoy being outside, so I like to volunteer at places such as the community garden or with litter cleanups. Volunteering can be what one makes of it while still benefiting the community as a whole.”

As part of the STEM Scholars, Mann this semester has helped coordinate service events. In that role, he said he’s learned the importance of clear communication, organization and project management.

Outside of the Scholars, he is responsible for planning service events for the Mizzou Engineering Student Council and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Through those, he’s volunteered at soup kitchens, local gardens at an animal shelter.

“The river clean-up was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a nice day and it felt really rewarding to maintain the beauty of the Missouri River area we cleaned. I also really love volunteering at Interfaith Gardens. After volunteering there with a couple of student organizations, I began going independently weekly over summer and once every two weeks during harvest season earlier in the semester.”

Mann stressed that even if volunteering requires work, it’s still a fun way to change the world.

“I think a lot of people underestimate their ability to help, as if small contributions don’t make a difference,” he said. “Every little thing helps. While it may seem as though our work only gives a temporary relief to people, it makes a difference. We may not be able to change the world in one big stride, but volunteering and helping the community are the first steps to seeing the change we need.”

Volunteer through a Mizzou Engineering student organization or see a list of opportunities here.