A Student’s Take on What Philanthropy Really Means

by Mariah Otlewski, Communications & Engagement Intern, Spring/Summer 2018

In August 2015, I finished packing up my childhood room, said goodbye to my dog, and drove west to my new home — Grand Valley State University. I came from a small town on the east side of Lansing, Michigan. My dad was the varsity football coach there, and I spent the first 19 years of my life immersed in my neighborhood, living and breathing my tight-knit community.

I knew that college would be different than high school in many ways, but I also knew I had to find a way to keep engaged and help the community around me. Almost as soon as I entered my freshman year, I declared a double major in Writing and Public and Nonprofit Administration. The moment I learned to write sentences, I began coming up with stories. When a high school English teacher told me that a school called Grand Valley offered a degree in writing, there was no question where I belonged. However, my love for helping others kept nagging at me. I remember telling an academic advisor I wanted to minor in helping people. After trial and error, I discovered the world of nonprofit administration. Soon after, I joined a student organization called Pals Student Mentors.

Mariah with her Pals "pal" Mariah with her Pals "pal"Now, three years later, I am entering my second year as president of Pals. We partner with local Grand Rapids schools to match GVSU student mentors with children from local elementary schools. We focus on building positive relationships and helping our mentees grow in confidence and self-assurance. Our students become role models for their mentees and engage with them at various events throughout the year. Through Pals, I found the close-knit, community feel I was desperate to find while in college.

Pals is only a small student organization through a neighboring college, yet our members see the effect they have on our children and their community every day. Mentoring around 40 children each year has changed the lives of so many for the better. We may not be reaching every child in our community, but that’s not the point. Our children affect others around them, their families, and their friends. Our work does not just start and end with a small group of children.

Philanthropy gives a sense of community, of belonging, as Pals has shown me these past few years. It’s one of the many reasons I love this field. Whether you are giving time, money, or expertise, you’re a part of one big family. Philanthropy could not exist without the intricate relationships that meld together to create service. Immersing myself and diving in head-first with Pals gave me a window into this world, with opportunities and experiences I wasn’t expecting. I’m leaving college full of ideas and hopes for future communities I’ll be a part of.

Pals gave me a window into this world, with opportunities and experiences I wasn’t expecting. I’m leaving college full of ideas and hopes for future communities I’ll be a part of.

Grand Valley has shown me how to carry philanthropy forward. There are constant opportunities to volunteer and give back. The university has many organizations, clubs, and groups that focus on giving back. Certain classes or majors require volunteer hours, a nudge to us students to remember how important it is to volunteer. We learn that the knowledge and experiences we gain should be displayed and shown throughout the community by giving back.

Students are an important aspect of many communities and a resource that shouldn’t be forgotten. As we build work skills and our resumés, we are also looking for opportunities to learn new things and get a chance to gain marketable experiences. Learning as we go oftentimes is a beneficial aspect to younger philanthropic advocates. As we sit and listen to lectures in the classroom, being a part of a nonprofit or service organization allows us to take the content we read and apply it to something real.

Not only is service an important part of our education, but work experiences we gain as students are vital too. Working as the communications and engagement student assistant at the Johnson Center (a department of GVSU) for the last six months has furthered my understanding of the philanthropic sector, and I feel more prepared than ever to be of service to others. My knowledge of the philanthropic sector has expanded. I can use data to predict marketing trends and research potential donor prospects. I’ve also learned what to wear to an interview. The biggest take-away was learning how nonprofits work behind the scenes, how data can influence decision-making, and why people volunteer. I gained knowledge I could translate into my work with Pals.

Like a lot of college seniors, I’m not exactly sure where I’ll be after I put on that cap and gown and walk across the stage. Despite my best efforts, I can’t predict the future. But after learning and experiencing what a true community feels like, I know I have to be a part of making my next one a better place. The field of service and philanthropy is everywhere: it’s in our businesses, our government, and our everyday lives. Understanding how it connects and interacts across sectors is key to not just changing a few lives but creating change and advocacy within a community.

We all come together in desperate times or in times of intense need. But that’s not enough. In our communities, we shouldn’t be waiting for the next tragedy or intense problem to arise. While we should be proud of how we do come together in such times, there needs to be a daily understanding of what we can do to make the community we live in better. Small or large, our actions truly do have an influence. My experience with Pals proves that.

The end of my college career is in sight, but I no longer wonder where I’ll end up. Philanthropy opens doors to the community for learning about and interacting with people around me. The point I’d like to make is this — give and do what you can to the best of your ability. Figure out what you believe in and understand what you can do to help further that cause. Small gestures create big ripples; we can all play a part — whether it’s behind the scenes, researching and advising, or in the field, hands-on and direct.

We will live in many different communities throughout our lives. Why not create lasting impact in each of them?


Mariah Otlewski is a senior at Grand Valley State University studying Writing and Public and Nonprofit Administration. She works at the GVSU Athletic Department as a student assistant. Starting this fall, Mariah will be interning at Make-A-Wish Michigan, assisting the Marketing and Communications Department.

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