Director dedicates work efforts toward the community


Photo by Sam Sargeant

Gabby Ryan (left) and Molly Ayers (right) assisted in increasing the number of students who got involved in the community

By Wilson Criscione, News Writer

Molly Ayers has set a new standard for community engagement at EWU, and she is just getting started.

Ayers was hired as director of community engagement in October 2012, a position that did not previously exist at the university. A year and a half later, she has been awarded the Community Leader Award from the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Cheney School District.

With Ayers leading the way, the office of community engagement has given hundreds of students volunteer opportunities, and she has helped the university broaden its impact on the Spokane-Cheney community.

“I think Eastern has been engaged [in the community], but to have an office that’s just dedicated to that work, it really helps focus our efforts, coordinate them and I think we’re able to do even better work,” Ayers said.

Ayers came to EWU from Gonzaga, where she was assistant director of the center for community action and service learning.

Her approach to Eastern’s wider impact on the community involves working with faculty to integrate community efforts into the learning process, planning and executing ongoing service projects and finding ways the university can partner with local programs to better serve the community.

Before coming to EWU, she questioned whether students would be excited about new opportunities to serve the community. She found that they not only met her expectations, but repeatedly exceeded them.

Over 7,000 students participated in the week-long Days of Kindness event, where students were asked to do one kind act in remembrance of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Ayers thought her initial goal of 5,000 kind acts in one week was too high, but the students’ high level of involvement inspired her.

“If you set those expectations really high, and then we achieve those, it’s just all the better,” Ayers said. “Maybe we need to set it higher.”

Gabby Ryan works under Ayers and is Eastern’s Eagle Volunteer Program Coordinator. Just like Ayers was after finishing her undergraduate degree, Ryan is an AmeriCorps Vista member. When coming from the University of South Florida with a population four times the size of Eastern’s, she was nervous about the student involvement in the community.

“I don’t think the university realized how much an office of community engagement was needed, and now we’re seeing this overwhelmingly positive response,” Ryan said. “It’s been really awesome to see how the students are responding.”

Ryan manages a team of 11 student leaders, five of whom bring students to local elementary, middle and high schools to mentor at-risk youth. Three leaders work with Feed Cheney, which is a monthly grocery distribution where anybody can get fresh produce. The final three leaders organize larger service projects such as Harvest Fest, Greek Week or Days of Kindness.

Ryan said Ayers is her supervisor, mentor and friend. She hopes to one day be in Ayers’ position.

“I absolutely adore her. She’s great. And she really loves students and she really, really cares about this university and creating a culture of service here,” Ryan said.

While Ayers wants students to serve the community at Eastern, she also hopes they understand the deeper meaning of service and carry that spirit with them after graduation.

“I want students not just to do service, but to think about the implications of the service,” Ayers said. “It should be a lifelong call to be engaged and involved in your community.”

After accomplishing so much in her short period of time at Eastern, Ayers believes the university could be a leader in community engagement in both the region and state in years to come. She is working with Eastern’s faculty to offer a certificate in community engagement so students are rewarded academically for their service efforts.

“That’s part of being an Eagle, is being involved and making a difference,” Ayers said.