Student Alumni Ambassadors Inspire Illini Spirit of Service

With a long and rich history at the University of Illinois, the Student Alumni Ambassadors remains an important and influential organization on campus. While SAA was founded in 1976, the student-led group didn’t make a name for itself until 1979 when it completely revived Homecoming, an event that started in 1910.

Because of SAA, Homecoming and all of the campus-wide activities that occur during Homecoming weekend have since become an exciting aspect of the University of Illinois student experience. SAA plans and organizes several large-scale events including Illinois Sights and Sounds, Homecoming and IHelp.

In the spring, SAA focuses on the University’s graduating seniors with a Senior 100 Honorary and GradFest.

Brett Cohen, Vice President of Outreach for SAA, says that his desire to be involved with the organization began early on in his college career.

“I really gained my interest during Homecoming my freshman year. Just seeing how excited (SAA) was to be celebrating the University, seeing all the orange and blue that decorated the Quad during Spirit Day, it just got me very excited,” Cohen says. “And I remember as a freshman, all bright-eyed thinking ‘I want to be on the other side of this next year.’”

As Vice President of Outreach, one of Cohen’s responsibilities is working with a group of eight co-directors in facilitating internal service events for SAA. They have participated in popular campus service initiatives such as Illinithon and Relay for Life in addition to working with Habitat for Humanity and other small communities.

Not only does Cohen plan internal service events, one of his biggest responsibilities is planning IHelp, a campus day of service.

“It is a tall order because we are not only organizing 1,500 student volunteers, we have to be organizing over 30 service projects as well as getting all the sponsorships,” Cohen says.

Every year over 1,000 students come together to give back to the University and the surrounding community. Contributing nearly 4,500 hours of service, the widely popular campus event allows student volunteers to clearly see their immediate impact on the local community and to foster the Illini spirit of service throughout the campus and beyond.

Over the years the idea of IHelp has evolved from a service event as a part of Homecoming weekend into a separate entity consisting of only one day during the fall semester.

“We decided that it would be so inspiring and so phenomenal if we could send all the volunteers out on the same day because just think about 1,500 students coming to the Quad to go volunteer on the same day for the same community,” says Cohen. “That’s just unbelievable. And we wanted to make it happen.”

In 2016, SAA received a grant of $2,000 from the Illini Dads Association that would go toward their organizational expenses.

“With IHelp, as part of the way to make sure people truly enjoy their experience, there are certain things of benefit we want to give to students,” says Cohen.

In part, the grant awards from the Illini Dads Association and other sponsors help SAA provide benefits for student volunteers who participate in IHelp. Every year the organization gives the student volunteers free t-shirts and free food during the event. Additionally, SAA uses grant money to provide transportation for volunteers to locations that are further off-campus.

This year IHelp 2017 will take place on Sept. 30, and Cohen says to expect some differences from previous years. He says that SAA’s main goal this year with IHelp is to find service projects students want to do.

“If our goal is to inspire a spirit of service and you really don’t like cleaning, then showing you that the only way to volunteer is cleaning won’t inspire that spirit of service,” says Cohen. “So we now we want to hear from the volunteers, ‘what kind of project do you want to do?’”

The registration form now includes a space for students to write what type of service project they are interested in.

Furthermore, Cohen mentioned that this year the IHelp reflection period is positioned to be more interactive with a banner that you can put your handprint on. Cohen says he also hopes to include letters people can send to the victims of the recent hurricanes.

“I like to say that we are super fans of the University. Our main motto is that we just want to engage students in a way that everybody has a fantastic Illini experience,” says Cohen. “We want everybody to be walking out of here feeling like they really enjoyed their four years here.