By Eric Dolan Founder and President of Student United Way of William Paterson University
My experience with United Way began, as many things in our day and age do, with a simple Google search. On a seemingly ordinary day in the thick of January I remembered a nearly forgotten desire of my high school-age self to spend my first college spring break helping others. I sat at my computer, quickly looked up “alternative spring break” between routine social media checks, and clicked the first link I saw: United Way Alternative Spring Break 2012. Little did I know, I wasn’t just looking at some website or registration form, I was staring down a journey that would change the way I looked at the world – a journey that continues to this day.
Ever since that plane took off for Mississippi last March, my life has fundamentally changed thanks to United Way. ASB 2012 was, without doubt, one of the greatest experiences of my life: From working firsthand rebuilding and revitalizing a community to meeting friends I now couldn’t imagine life without. It was the single most fun, rewarding, and downright special week of my entire life. As I boarded my plane back home I felt like a different person: More aware, more passionate, and more capable than ever to leave this world a better place than the one I inherited from my parents. I arrived in Biloxi with just a ticket and a suitcase at my side, but left with a passion to make a difference that has revolutionized me as a person.
The Monday after I returned from ASB I found myself seated and patiently waiting for a meeting with the William Paterson Campus Activities office armed with a notebook and a goal: To start the first Student United Way in the State of New Jersey. Six months, one constitution, and countless hours later The Student United Way of William Paterson University was born! The club’s first few official steps were beautiful to behold, guided by the ever-watchful eye of United Way of Passaic County who was there every single step of the way with guidance, encouragement, and, of course, tons of incredible volunteer opportunities.
As the semester began to heat up and our first meeting was on the horizon (scheduled for the day I had circled in my calendar on the plane home from Biloxi marked “ultimate goal”), I had one final trip to make with United Way – this time to Washington D.C. for the Student United Way Leadership Retreat. Heading into the weekend I expected three things based on my ASB experience: Information, newfound passion, and friends I would never forget. Once again, I was treated to all that and then some. A brilliantly crafted weekend brimming with excitement, critical information and tips for a new club, and a ton of “HEYOO!”s gave me the final push I needed to make this club something that could change lives and transform a city.
Two days after I returned from Washington D.C. I found myself standing in front of a classroom of 55 students at our first WPUnited meeting; the iconic words “LIVE UNITED” emblazoned across my shirt and heart as I launched into a speech I started writing in the bayous of Mississippi six months prior and spent the entire night before fine tuning. It was the culmination of six months’ worth of passion and hard work, and yet it was just the beginning.
Right now I’m writing to you from the basement of a church in Paterson, NJ that has been transformed into a “homework hub” and the power of Student United Way has never been clearer to me. I just finished my debut rap performance with my newest friends from the Bridgehope CDC After-school Program. (They referred to my performance as “pretty dope, but needed more swag”.) They are a group of incredible kids that my fellow members and I work with each and every week, helping to curb high school dropout rates by promoting childhood literacy and a love for reading through tutoring and mentoring each child. Coupled with our “Starting Line” Children’s Book Drive that has already raised over 1,000 books for kids in our community, we have dedicated this semester to the fundamental belief that you should not be able to tell if a child will graduate high school or not based on their zip code, and are doing everything we can to bring Paterson youth up to par with state averages.
Student United Way is more than just a club to me. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the fundamental belief that we as college students can change this world, and that the change begins right in our communities where the need is most dire. It’s bigger than this blog post, or this website, or me, or you. It’s a global movement to make this world a better place. And that’s why I LIVE UNITED.
Want to hear more from Eric? Check out his recent radio interview on WPSC-88.7FM in Paterson, NJ.