NACOGDOCHES, Texas - More than 130 students in Stephen F. Austin State University's hospitality administration program participated in a service-learning pilot project this semester that generated 786 volunteer hours.

Faculty members for each course within the program included a six-hour service-learning component to their syllabi.

Each semester, our program gets multiple requests to help with events from community organizations," said Dr. Chay Runnels, hospitality administration program coordinator. "This semester, we decided to formalize the process and implement a six-hour service-learning component in all hospitality courses. We believe students enrolled in these courses should have real-world experience if they plan on working with the public in this industry."

Students volunteered with organizations that Runnels said the program has built relationships with over the years. For example, students were bell ringers for the Salvation Army, and Molly Hoya, kettle coordinator and secretary of the board for the Salvation Army, said the students were instrumental to the organization's fundraising.

"It's very important to give back to our community. We need to help out our fellow neighbor because who knows what situation we will be in in the future," Hoya said. "Volunteering allows students to see the reality that life can be hard and how important it can be to help out our community."

Students also worked at various events and with several organizations, including the SFA Art Gallery, food pantries, Love Inc, Appleby Community Farm, the SOLID Foundation, Millard's Crossing, SFASU Foundation, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Lufkin, The Bettie Kennedy Memorial Food Drive, Caddo Mounds State Historical Site, the Durst-Taylor House, SFA outdoor recreation, the dean of Fine Arts and the SFA Alumni Association.

"We've been discussing sustainability issues with our students for a long time, and we want to develop sustainable partnerships with every organization we work with," Runnels said. "This project helps both the instructors and the students gain a greater understanding of how our volunteering assists these organizations in meeting their goals."

One of the project's goals was to give students experience working with the public in a structured environment and to help them feel connected to the larger East Texas community.

Runnels said the program will continue to embed the service-learning component in its courses with modifications as needed.

"By making the service-learning project program wide-not just isolated to one or two courses-we can begin to institutionalize the idea of service learning," Runnels said. "The hospitality industry also is called the 'service sector.' If you don't have a heart for service and serving people, then you are in the wrong industry. I think this helps students to see early on in their careers if working with people is right for them."