The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge (2013)

The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge was launched by President Obama and the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (WHOFBNP) in 2011 as a call to higher education institutions to advance interfaith service across their campus communities. Over 400 colleges and universities from across the United States exhibited enthusiasm and interest in the initiative in the first year alone. Since then, the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Education and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) have partnered to administer the Challenge and cultivate the movement of students, staff, and faculty who are building interfaith cooperation by serving their communities together.[1]

On September 23-24, 2013 WHOFBNP convened the third annual gathering of participating institutions at Georgetown University and hosted a special reception with presidents of colleges and universities at the White House Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC.

Conference Program and Events

The conference program consisted of plenary sessions with the 400 attendees featuring senior administration officials and break out sessions with campus representatives who presented on the challenges and successes of participating in the interfaith service initiative.

Speakers included WHOFBNP Executive Director Melissa Rogers, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) CEO Wendy Spencer, and Paul Monteiro, Advisor to the White House Office of Public Engagement. Representatives from organizations including Campus Compact and Interfaith Youth Core were onsite to offer best practices and resources on how to best engage in meaningful interfaith dialogue while serving one’s community.

Breakout sessions on the first day focused on interfaith community service; on the second day, conversation turned to interfaith engagement. Panelists were professors, administrators, and student leaders who represented a range of higher education institutions across the country. Assistant Professor of History Dr. Lopita Nath spoke about the interfaith service work at University of the Incarnate Word, a Catholic institution in San Antonio, Texas during a panel discussion on “Engaging Community Interfaith Partners.” University of Pennsylvania student Jessica King spoke on a panel with representatives of Stanford University, Tennessee Technological University, and Georgetown University, discussing service initiatives that address domestic poverty and economic opportunity. Public institutions, too, participated in breakout sessions. Dr. Stephen Spina, Senior Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire spoke about interfaith engagement through curricular initiatives with other panelists.

The gathering was held during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which provided opportunities for participants to observe and interact with the sukkah structure constructed by the Jewish community at Georgetown. This sukkah was also was profiled by National Public Radio’s Code Switch.[2] Project Interfaith and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs also hosted a Speed Interfaith Dialogue Session which allowed participants to engage in conversations exploring cultural and religious identity in an informal and fast-paced environment.

The gathering ended with an opportunity for participating institutions to meet and take photos with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Institutionalizing Interfaith

During the conference it was announced that the President’s Challenge, now in it’s third year, will be merged with the CNCS initiative, The President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, which launched in 2006.[3] Every year, nearly 1,000 colleges and universities apply to receive recognition for their community service initiatives. Hundreds of schools are named to the Honor Roll with a select few receiving Presidential Awards presented at the American Council on Education Annual Meeting in March. Starting this year, all of these campuses, along with those who have previously participated in the President’s Challenge will have the opportunity to be recognized for their specifically interfaith community service efforts. Through this partnership, organizers seek to further institutionalize interfaith community service across the sector of higher education.

Both CNCS and WHOFBNP staff were on hand during the gathering to discuss this change and fielded questions from participants about how this will impact the participation of both public and private institutions.

Future Directions

Applications for the Interfaith Honor Roll will be launched online for the first time in late fall 2013 when campuses will be able to report their community service initiatives over the past year. The Department of Education is also accepting “Intent to Participate” forms from any colleges or universities that would like to join the initiative.[4]


[1]  Interfaith Youth Core. “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.” http://www.ifyc.org/presidents-challenge.

[2] “Ancient Jewish Tradition Meets Contemporary Design.” National Public Radio. 25 September 2013. http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/09/25/225463904/ancient-jewish-tradition-meets-contemporary-design.

[3] Corporation for National and Community Service. “President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.” http://www.nationalservice.gov/special-initiatives/honor-roll.

[4] The Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “President’s Challenge.” http://sites.ed.gov/fbnp/presidents-campus-challenge/.