Classes at Boston University don’t begin until Tuesday, but 750 freshman and transfer students have already moved in to get a head start. Before sitting in calculus or economics classrooms, incoming students are learning about their new city by working as volunteers in different communities through the school’s FYSOP program.
FYSOP stands for First-Year Student Outreach Project and it began at BU in 1989. First-year BU students make the trip to campus a week early in order to spend some time learning about social justice service and volunteering in one of 10 focus areas: abilities, animals, children, elders, environment, food justice, gender and sexuality, homelessness and housing, human rights, and public health.
“I think a lot of first-years might have done community service in high school, but it wasn’t necessarily social justice focused,” said Eva Kennedy, a 21-year-old BU senior who is working as a staff leader for the program this year. “They’ve never talked about things like homelessness, sexual assault, abuse, and I think they’re surprised by how heavy it is.”
Students tend to be receptive to the new situations, Kennedy added. Though she wasn’t able to participate in FYSOP when she was a freshman—her summer schedule meant she had to sign up for the BU orientation that coincides with FYSOP week—she’s worked as a staff leader every year since.
This year, she’s leading the “homelessness and housing” team, which will visit FYSOP community partners like local shelters for its service days at the end of the week. FYSOP splits the week before Labor Day into education days on Monday and Tuesday, when the students learn about their focus issues, and then service days with hands-on involvement on Wednesday through Friday.
Participants in “homelessness and housing” got to hear from a woman who had been homeless and now, with the help of Pine Street Inn, has been able to get housing as well as get sober. She had run away from home at 13, Kennedy said, to escape a sexually and physically abusive father. She got involved with prostitution and eventually heroin, but now has her life back on track.
“She has obviously been through so much in her life, and hearing that is so much more effective than just hearing statistics about homelessness or people in poverty,” Kennedy said. “Now she has a positive life and is able to speak to people about her experiences. It’s hard not to get so much out of that, and I think all of the first years got a lot.”
FYSOP does more than give students an opportunity to make a contribution to their new city. It actually helps them become true Boston residents, FYSOP program manager Stefanie Grossano said.
“Not only are [students] engaging with the city through service, but they’re able to listen to and hear authentic voices, and I think that’s the best way to understand what it means to be a Bostonian,” she said. “And it’s a way to travel to other neighborhoods first years otherwise wouldn’t go to.”
For Grossano and fellow program manager Claire Buesser, that connection to the many parts of Boston is important and helped inspire this year’s overall FYSOP theme: Gardens.
“Not to get too cheesy, but we really like the way gardens represent a multiplicity of people, like with a multiplicity of vegetables,” Grossano said. “If you have a monoculture in a garden, it wouldn’t be a healthy place. In BU and Boston, we have these plural communities—different people with different backgrounds and ideas.”
Along with getting BU students to venture beyond the Green Line, FYSOP serves yet another, more simple purpose. With their teams, these students get to talk about serious topics, and that quickly forms some strong bonds, Kennedy said.
“It’s such a hard transition from high school to college, it’s the first time they’re on their own, and this makes them feel more comfortable at BU,” she said. She has seen students remain friends well beyond their FYSOP experience.
“There’s no reason not to do it,” Kennedy said. “Even if maybe you’re not super interested in whatever focus area you’re doing, or for some reason not into the service—which I’ve actually never seen happen—you still have this week where you’re able to meet people and connect with them on a real level.”