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United Way's student delegations meet in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2009 - Alexandria Lee and Lizzy Burns, two sophomores at Saint Louis University, took part in a conference for college students over the weekend that got them thinking about how to generate interest -– both on and off campus -– in programs planned by their chapter of Student United Way.

One session at the second annual United Way Worldwide Student United Way Leadership Retreat, held in St. Louis, dealt with just that issue -– how to use guerilla marketing and other media techniques to create buzz around an event.

After speaking with the SLU students on Saturday morning, before that media session even took place, it was clear that they had already mastered the concept of playing up big-name invites, especially if they are controversial and regularly in the news.

North Side developer "Paul McKee’s coming to campus,” Burns, vice president of philanthropy for SLU's Student United Way group, was quick to say when asked about an event taking place at SLU on Oct. 26 in which leaders of nonprofit and for-profit entities will talk about community and economic development.

Burns and Lee were two of roughly 40 students from 11 colleges across the country -– including SLU, Wash. U. and Harris-Stowe State University -- who took part in the retreat at the United Way of Greater St Louis' downtown office. They are all leaders of their student-led branches of the national organization.

Student United Way chapters came to SLU and Wash. U. last fall; Harris-Stowe and the University of Missouri-St. Louis are expected to get their chapters next year. The groups meet weekly to talk about how to get students and people who live in nearby neighborhoods involved in projects involving causes like improving access to health care and lowering high school dropout rates. The United Way offers thousands of dollars of grant money to support the student-run projects. Getting the word out about these volunteer gigs is often the difficult part.

“The conversation around campus is often whether there is apathy among students,” said Evan Krauss, a manager within the United Way’s Volunteer Center. “Our feeling is that there isn’t apathy, but that there’s not enough awareness about what’s going on in the community.”

College campuses are filled with overcommitted students who want to take part in charity basketball tournaments (Lee and Burns are helping to plan one on Nov. 14) or meet formally with the heads of other student groups (something the Washington University delegation is trying to facilitate). Part of the purpose of the United Way conference is to get students thinking about how to plan and pitch projects that are lofty in aim, manageable in execution and realistic in expectations.

“Given your time commitments, and being a college student, what can you do to make a difference?” Mike Brooks, a United Way campus engagement official, asked the conference attendees on several occasions.

Added Sam Bear, vice president of philanthropy for the Wash. U. chapter of Student United Way: “We want people to give time, but our job is to present them with an opportunity to do something small."

Students in the Wash. U. chapter are spreading the word about their own version of the business leader event that's also planned at SLU. Representatives from YMCA and the cheese company Swiss-American are expected to take part in a conversation about leading in a time of change. The organizations involved will also have recruitment tables at the event.

The St. Louis college students took the chance Saturday to talk about the business event and other projects in the works, such as the SLU charity hoops tournament for students, called "Live United Play United." For the event, each team will select a United Way agency to represent. The winning team will organize a volunteer project that benefits their agency of choice.

Erin Moss, president of the Student United Way chapter at Wash. U., said she came to the conference in part to network and to hear what other student groups are doing. “We don’t just want to overlap with what people already have planned,” she said.

Added Bear: “It’s cool to come together with like-minded and civic-minded students.”