Entrance Torch

The Dynamics of Giving: Students Make Difficult Philanthropic Decisions in Buinicki’s Literature Course

Martin Buinicki’s voice cracks with emotion as he recalls the impassioned dialogue among students in his Traditions of Giving and Serving in American Life course. The course is part of the newly-created minor in philanthropic leadership and service, which integrates with the Institute for Leadership and Service under the guidance of Director Elizabeth Lynn.

“At Valpo, serving others is part of the fabric of who we are and what we do,” Buinicki said. “It’s impossible to just burrow in your own office and not take part in serving the community and not take part in the campus life that’s looking to help others.”

Students in Buinicki’s class must determine how to best donate $10,000 in grant money to local nonprofits. The decision is difficult. The discussions are intense. And students become personally invested in the local nonprofits they research.

“It’s definitely an intellectual task, but the emotion is right there,” said Buinicki, an associate professor of English at Valparaiso University.

“Each student is assigned a nonprofit,” Buinicki said. “I tell them they don’t have to advocate for that nonprofit. They simply have to go there, learn about it, and write a profile so that other students can read about it. That’s it.

“Yet, often, as you might expect, when the students go to these agencies and see the people they’re helping and hear about their struggles, they become invested. When they get together and listen to each others’ opinions and try to remain objective, it gets emotional.”

Buinicki, who serves as the Walter G. Friedrich Professor of American Literature, joined the University faculty in 2004. His wife, Andrea, has worked in the nonprofit sector in various capacities for 16 years, and their family has been active in the Valparaiso community since their arrival to the area.

When Buinicki joined the Valpo faculty, former Chair of the Department of English Ed Uehling approached him about offering a philanthropy and literature course. It began small with a $1,000 grant for the students to distribute and has grown to its current state. In 2010, Buinicki worked with the Sunshine Lady Foundation to take part in the Learning By Giving program.

Learning By Giving has since grown into its own foundation and has built partnerships with several universities around the country so that each school can distribute $10,000 annually to local organizations. Valpo was the first university to offer a literature course through the foundation.

“The students literally take those things we’ve been discussing in class and in the texts and draw connections with the choices that they’re making,” Buinicki said. “It’s not so often that you get to see that really immediate connection between the material and the day-to-day living.

“Certainly that’s true for me, too. I’m making the same kind of philanthropic decisions in my life. We’ve been thinking about that in our culture for hundreds of years.”

This year, the class chose to give $5,000 to Parents as Teachers of Porter County, $3,000 to Housing Opportunities, and $2,000 to the Center for Workforce Innovations.

“I think this class taught me how complex philanthropy is,” junior Caleb Rollins said. “It’s not simple. Everyone has different and valuable opinions on the issue, because it affects all of us in one way or another. Still, we should not be afraid of the complexity of the issue, but view it as an opportunity and a challenge to continually improve how we give and serve in our communities.”

The literature covered in the course includes a variety of genres from different American authors, including selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jane Addams, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Martin Luther King Jr., and Kurt Vonnegut. The course also includes guest speakers and site visits to local nonprofit organizations.

“The class definitely connected me with the larger Valparaiso community in a way that I didn’t expect. I was able to meet various community leaders and study a local nonprofit agency that I otherwise would not have known. I also gained a knowledge of all of the great work that citizens in this city do,” said Rollins. “It has been truly inspiring to me.”

Read the full magazine online at valpo.edu/valpomag.