Besides bestowing academic degrees, Florida Gulf Coast University is dedicated to helping students graduate into adulthood as involved, responsible citizens. To that end, service-learning and the civic engagement it fosters are integral to The FGCU Effect: Inspiring those who inspire others.
Under the banner of “We Connect Classrooms and Communities,” the Office of Service-Learning & Civic Engagement coordinates an educational experience matching students’ academic goals and personal interests while meeting needs of the university and the Southwest Florida community we call home. The service-learning experience has proven to be mutually beneficial; by volunteering their time and talent to help nonprofit organizations, students enhance their own communication skills, critical thinking and social awareness.
The numbers tell the initiative’s resounding success story: Since 1997, FGCU students – pandemic and all – have contributed more than 3 million service hours through about 300 integrated academic courses involving some 350 community partners. In fact, many inspired students go beyond – far beyond — the minimum hours needed to graduate, which are 80 hours for those who start at FGCU as freshmen or sophomores and 40 hours for upper-level transfer students.
Indeed, just as in academic fields, there also are service-learning “overachievers,” if you will. And two of them – just-graduated biology majors Estelle Ayomen and Daniel Kohl-Fink – knocked their propensity for volunteerism out of the park. Both donated almost 900 service-learning hours despite the demands of being students in a STEM field, and as such, were named recipients of FGCU’s Excellence in Civic Engagement Award for the fall semester.
“Estelle and Daniel represent all that we hope for students as they engage in service-learning at FGCU,” said Justin Fitzgerald, FGCU director of community engagement. “Through over 800 service-learning hours each, both students found unique ways to connect their life experiences, their passions, their coursework, and their career goals to needs in the community. Their stories represent the reason service-learning remains an integral part of the FGCU experience.”
FGCU360 asked Ayomen and Kohl-Fink separately to share their motivation for going above and beyond as stewards of the community as they prepare to embark on the next chapters of their lives. In their own words, they describe why they got involved with the organizations they help, their own sources of inspiration and their hopes for the future.
FGCU360: We understand two of your foremost passions are the Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers and New Horizons of Southwest Florida. Let’s begin with the Mastersingers, an organization that bills itself as the premier choral ensemble in Southwest Florida performing works from classical composers and innovative new compositions. Explain how you got involved with them, and please describe the “Science of Music” presentation you helped create with the group.
AYOMEN: I started singing in high school, mainly because most of my friends were in the choir, but I quickly developed a love for choral music. During my senior year of high school, we were invited to sing in Carnegie Hall. We performed pieces by Paul Mealor, who told us something I will never forget: “Music connects human beings in subterranean ways that cannot be explained, only felt.” This solidified my love for music, especially choral music.
After graduating high school, I found myself missing music dearly and auditioned for a community choir — the Mastersingers. I was so impressed with their commitment to community outreach and raising visibility of charitable acts at their concerts. I thought it was so special that they were a group of all-volunteer singers with the appreciation that they are not singing for themselves, but for the community.
In 2019, I had the opportunity to create a presentation to go along with the Mastersingers’ concert for the Edison Festival of Light. A few months prior, I had developed an activity for FGCU’s GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science) event on the mathematics of music, “Mathemusics.” For the Mastersingers concert, I worked with former Mastersingers Artistic Director Jeff Faux to present “The Science of Music,” demonstrating the connection between the arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). I identified ways in which the physics of sound affects the way we perceive music, and we were also able to have the audience participate in the presentation through demonstrations and live discussions. Since the arts are something we would not normally associate STEM with, I hoped to bring light to the interesting connection that lies between the two realms.
FGCU360: New Horizons of Southwest Florida is a nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk children and teens. Why are you involved with that group?
AYOMEN: I discovered New Horizons through my church, and I love the organization because they value giving time to the youth in our community, and they highlight the importance of doing so. For them, I try to be encouraging, motivating and positive. I remember I was introduced to the students as “the girl who thinks math is fun” because I wanted them to get excited by math rather than nervous. They made fun of me for it, but we got a lot of math done!
As a college student, I am able to connect with them easier than other volunteers. I let them know that I sometimes struggle in school, too, and that that’s OK! Most of all, I try to be someone who cares and believes in them, because sometimes that’s all they need.
FGCU360: Are there any other community projects or organizations you have been involved with, or are planning to get involved with?
AYOMEN: I’ve been involved with other community choirs such as the Symphonic Chorale of Southwest Florida and the chancel choir at my church in Bonita Springs. I also recently started helping with tech for the Mastersingers’ Alzheimer’s and Dementia Choir. I’ve also volunteered at Gulf Coast Medical Center, and a new organization I want to get involved with is Keep Florida Beautiful.
FGCU360: As a student in a STEM field with great academic demands, how do you make time for community involvement? Why do you think it’s important?
AYOMEN: I’ve accumulated over 900 hours of service-learning during my time at FGCU. Being a biology major was definitely demanding, but one of my professors here taught me that “if you want to make your problems smaller, make your world bigger.” There were many days where I just wanted to stay home and catch up on schoolwork or studying, but I reminded myself that being active in the community was high on my priority list, too. Committing to these organizations forced me to manage my time wisely, and they often motivated me to keep up with my academics as well.
Community service is important because when you help or positively impact one person, you enable yourself to impact the lives of their entire network of family and friends — just by making a positive impact on this one person. Being involved in the community and volunteering for organizations that you are passionate about allows you to be a small force of good — and that is something we should take advantage of. On top of that, every organization I have worked with and many of the people I have met through community service have left positive, lasting impacts on me as well.
FGCU360: What are your short- and long-term career plans, both professionally and personally?
AYOMEN: Professionally, I plan to fuse my passions for STEM and music in pursuing a path in auditory neuroscience. I hope to apply to Ph.D. programs to study sound and/or the brain within the next couple of years. Beyond graduate school, I plan to continue with education as a professor and continue my involvement with youth in STEM and community outreach. Personally, I will continue working to make a positive difference in my community through service, music and outreach. I want to continue boldly sharing my passions and hopefully form my own nonprofit organization one day.
FGCU360: Who are your most influential role models, both at FGCU and outside the university?
AYOMEN: Here at FGCU, my most influential role models are a few of my professors, Dr. (Sherri) Emer, Professor (Maggie) Swanson and Dr. (Trent) Brown. Outside the university, I’d have to say my choir directors, Jeff Faux and Shannon Arnold, as well as Olga and Rebecca from New Horizons. They have all inspired me to be a better person, and I am so grateful for them.
FGCU360: How has FGCU helped you develop and grow as a student and as a person?
AYOMEN: On my first day of college, I wouldn’t have imagined that I would accomplish and achieve all that I have at FGCU. I knew I would be learning a lot about biology, but I have truly learned so much more.
This university has propelled me to do things that I am passionate about apart from academics. I have had the opportunity to work as an instructional assistant for classes and camps for three years, I’ve done research on simulated microgravity effects on the visual system in zebrafish for two years, and I’ve participated in service-learning activities for all four years. Taking advantage of many of the opportunities offered by FGCU has made these past four years incredible.
As a person, FGCU has made me more appreciative of community — and I’m not just saying that because of this award. As a relatively smaller school, we have a close-knit community. The students, faculty and staff have all been so positive and uplifting, and I can definitely say that I would not be here without the encouragement of my peers and professors. The community built at FGCU is like none other, and moving forward, I hope I can carry FGCU’s excellence onward.