Days before their classmates arrived on campus, 32 Niagara University freshmen dove headfirst into exploring the institution's Catholic and Vincentian identity.
The first-year students participated in the university's "Niagara Plunge" program, an abbreviated version of NU's popular service-immersion experience, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, or BASIC.
As part of the "Niagara Plunge," which took place Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, students performed work at Heart, Love and Soul, Summit Life Outreach, the Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club, ReNU Niagara, the Francis Center and Magdalene Project, and joined with Niagara alumni to clean and straighten the thrift store at Holy Trinity Church.
Freshman theater major Esteban Valentin was eager to take the plunge, so to speak, since he was active in community service as a high school student in Greenacres, Florida.
"The ability to perform community service was very important for me when selecting colleges," he said. "In doing service, we are giving ourselves an opportunity to grow. It's important to remember that we are little puzzle pieces in a greater picture. When we come together as one to do service, we can see this greater picture more clearly."
Arianna Gabriel is one of Niagara University's Vincentian Scholars, a select group of highly qualified undergraduate students who work in tandem with area agencies to alleviate poverty and social injustice. Gabriel attended a Catholic high school in Ontario and said she wanted to continue to give back to those in need.
"It was nice to see Niagara standing by their values," said Gabriel, an English major. "I love how Niagara University gives back to the local communities and is really integrated into the communities of Lewiston and Niagara Falls."
An ancillary benefit for the new students participating in the "Plunge" is that they have an extra few days to connect with classmates over a common goal. Along with assisting the less fortunate, the students engage in daily prayer and reflection, learn about the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul and enjoy numerous team-building activities, including game nights, a scavenger hunt, community meals and a trip to the Maid of the Mist.
"The aspect of getting to know my classmates better has been very beneficial," Valentin said. "When we see each other around campus now, we are always happy to see one another. We also enjoy meeting and dining together."
Sarah Lipinski had a similar experience as an incoming student in the fall of 2013. Now a senior early childhood education major, Lipinski is participating in her fourth "Plunge" - her third as a student leader. She said she takes gratification in showing freshmen the many opportunities they have at NU to serve others in need.
"The 'Plunge' offers a chance for us students to see directly the impact of our time, service and compassion on our surrounding community and the people we serve," the Hamburg native said. "The willingness of a group of freshmen who are brand-new to the college experience to give their time to helping others is something really special to see."
Lipinski was one of the 15 student leaders who helped coordinate "Plunge" activities in conjunction with the office of campus ministry. Some of the leaders even woke up early to pray with the freshmen at sunrise in what Valentin described as a "beautiful experience."
Most importantly, the upperclassmen exposed the new students to a microcosm of Niagara University's Catholic and Vincentian mission, values and traditions. Valentin, Gabriel and several others have already stated they will get involved in BASIC. During semester breaks, BASIC participants perform service in areas including Camden, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Greensboro, North Carolina; St. Louis; and the Republic of Panama.
"The only question now is which semester to sign up - winter or spring?" Gabriel said.
To learn more about Niagara University, visit www.niagara.edu.