Engage Dallas at SMU Inspires Community Service on Campus

By Barbara Pierce

SMU student Sayumi Mahawanniarachichi could barely feel her face, toes, or fingers as she clutched the grip of her trash picker and grabbed countless pieces of trash off the grassy surfaces of White Rock Lake, located in East Dallas.

She remembers people walking by and shouting words of appreciation and gratitude. That was last December.

“It was really cool because a lot of people did appreciate what we were doing,” Mahawanniarachichi said. “When you go out there, you see how much of a need there is to help keep White Rock cleaned up.”

She tied up a large black trash bag filled to the brim with more litter than she could have ever imagined. Mahawanniarachichi says being a part of the workforce that attempted to solve the trash problem feels extremely meaningful to her.

Mahawanniarachichi is a junior studying biology, psychology, and neuroscience and widely involved on campus as a Caswell Leadership Fellow, Engaged Learning Fellow, and the Hamilton Undergraduate Research Fellow.

This past year, she became the director of an environmental initiative called Engage Dallas Armstrong Commons. The clean-up at White Rock Lake was her first and only service project with the organization, and she immediately found herself hooked.

Working alongside other Armstrong commons residents and students to serve others has made her realize that there might not be that big of a barrier in serving the SMU community and the Dallas communities.

Mahawanniarachichi says there is a stigma of affluent and privileged culture around campus, but in reality, SMU students come from all different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. To her, part of serving the community is realizing that there are people around campus everyday who are experiencing problems such as homelessness or food insecurity.

Engage Dallas is a place-based community engagement initiative by SMU’s residential commons to address community needs. Their long-term initiative goals are to build capacity for social change in our local community and engage SMU students, staff, and faculty to serve, learn, and lead while advancing the field of community engagement in higher education.

The initiative was created in 2019 following an anonymous donation earmarked specifically for community service activities. From then on, the program has expanded as a university-wide commitment to positively impact the community equally on and off campus.

Each residential commons focuses on a specific community need, including homelessness, food insecurity, college access and preparation, environmental justice, and childhood poverty. Engage Dallas has expanded their network of community partners to allow students to have consistent opportunities to go out into the community and commit hours outside of the classroom to do good deeds around campus and Dallas.

This past November, Kathy Crow Commons traveled to Hatcher Farms station in South Dallas to serve with Restorative Farms. Students helped hand pick vegetables to pack in Thanksgiving meal packages that would be passed out among the local community.

Mahawanniarachichi says she feels lucky to be able to attend a university in the first place and believes those also in this position should think about ways to give back to the community.

“We have to keep in mind that we are here at SMU,” Mahawanniarachichi said. “We are very fortunate to be getting an education and be in a position to give back to the community, both on this campus and those surrounding SMU who are not as fortunate.”

Mahawanniarachichi’s Engage Dallas co-worker, MacKenzie Thierry, is also eager to help those having a difficult time on campus. Thierry is the student director of Cockrell-McIntosh Commons and finds her inspiration to serve through giving back to the community while being more involved in Engage Dallas’s initiative.

“The thing that encouraged me to give back, besides it being the right thing to do, is that I know people are struggling,” Thierry said. “I ultimately believe if you are blessed to have your essential needs met daily, then you can at least find time to give a helping hand to others.”

Gigi Kinani, another director of Armstrong Commons for Engage Dallas, also believes his role has helped shape the way he sees the ongoing community issues at SMU. Kinani has found his experience with the initiative to be very informative in being exposed to the different community problems Engage Dallas strives to tackle. He says he has been able grow his leadership and cooperation skills while acting as a campus director and engaging students in direct service.

“Helping this community is a very important aspect to have as a student and to see the world from a different view,” Kinani said.

Mahawanniarachichi, Theirry, and Kinani’s important positions have allowed them all to think and put others over themselves since obtaining their roles as directors and directly serving others.

“It has made me more aware of others’ struggles and how to carry out different solutions for their problems,” Kinani said.

Engage Dallas encourages students from all grades to join their initiative and shed light on the community needs and problems around Dallas and at SMU, whether they are mental, environmental, financial, or social. Engage Dallas works all over the city with various organizations focusing on the planet, homelessness, hunger, mental health, etc.

“I think people should know how easy it is to get involved in service through Engage Dallas,” Mahawanniarachichi said. “It comes to you, especially with issues here on our own campus. Community service looks and feels great in the long run, and I am looking forward to participating in future service outings.”

SMU students across campus and in the Dallas area are engaging in new and unique ways to contribute to their communities. This is a story reported as part of a Trailblazer series by students in Annette Nevins’ Feature Writing course in Spring 2022.