RALEIGH — Two summers ago, after a cheerful army of volunteers inside N.C. State University's Carmichael Auditorium bagged more than 300,000 meals to feed schoolchildren in Haiti and earthquake victims in Peru, two event organizers started talking.
Mike Giancola wondered aloud how they could top such a feat the next year.
"What about 500,000?" said Ray Buchanan, head of the Raleigh nonprofit group Stop Hunger Now.
Giancola didn't even pause.
"One million," he said.
That, Buchanan says, is typical of Giancola, who directs N.C. State's Center for Student Leadership, Ethics and Public Service (CSLEPS).
"Mike isn't afraid of stretching," Buchanan says. "He likes to push himself, his staff and students beyond their comfort zone because he has seen what's possible when we all work together."
Beyond the comfort zone is where more than 1,500 NCSU students have found themselves when they embarked on nearly 90 CSLEPS-sponsored service trips over the past 12 years, typically during spring or fall breaks. This past week, the latest group of students to sign up for the trips found out which ones they would get.
Students who have never flown on an airliner find themselves in places such as post-Katrina New Orleans, Ecuador, Ghana, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka, building houses, improving water systems or working in a free clinic, while navigating a new culture.
Whatever help the students lend to their host country isn't the main point. It's to engage their minds and hearts with the broader world, says Giancola, 37.
"I tell students my job is to infect them and make them sick," he says. "They say 'What does that mean?' and I reply 'I'm going to make you sick with some realities of the world. It's not for me to tell you what to do about them, but you'll be called based on whatever force that drives you to do something about it.'"
Changing a career
Mike Taylor, 21, a senior from Charlotte, is among many NCSU students who have felt that call. He said he knew he wanted to be a doctor when he came to the university, and CSLEPS inspired him to plan a career in international medicine, maybe with a group such as Doctors Without Borders.
Giancola, Buchanan, their staffs and volunteers did pack more than 1 million meals in the 2008 Stop Hunger Now event, by expanding the project to colleges and universities across the state. Then they did it again at the beginning of the current semester. The idea is to pull as many people as possible into the fight against hunger.
"A million meals isn't going to solve the hunger problem," Giancola says. "It's not even going to scratch the surface for an hour, but we can engage 4,000 to 5,000 people around the state in the work that Stop Hunger Now is doing and get them to the point where they detest hunger."
Giancola's office also offers leadership development workshops for students and a four-year leadership development program for 50 NCSU students. Since 1999, CSLEPS student teams have helped build 52 houses around the world, donated $186,500 to Habitat for Humanity and worked 36,000 hours on service trips overseas and in the United States.
All this might seem like a better fit at a liberal arts university rather than a major technology-oriented land-grant institution such as NCSU, but Giancola says there is no better place for his work.
"If you look at the issues of the world, approaching a billion people are hungry," he said. "Now, some institutions have a lot of contributions to make to society, but they're probably not going to solve the hunger issue. Who has the expertise to do that? A school like N.C. State."
Alma Buljina, 21, a senior psychology major from Winston-Salem, says exposure to CSLEPS has made her want to do similar work on a campus somewhere.
Buljina has been on one hunger-focused overseas trip with Giancola and will be a student leader on another in the fall. She has held Stop Hunger Now fundraising parties and has taken CSLEPS leadership seminars, including some led by Giancola.
"He always helps you with perspective," she says. "Whenever you've kind of made up your mind, he gives you the kind of flip side, and he'd encourage us to challenge the process, to challenge what we think we know."
Giancola wasn't raised to solve the world's problems.
His family was classic blue-collar Italian-American, and he recalls little travel from Pittsburgh, other than to Boy Scout camp or to visit relatives in North Carolina.
His father, 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, was a welder and ran a small auto repair business, and believed strongly in self-reliance.
In his 40s, though, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
"Suddenly he was dependent on my mom as his nurse and caregiver, dependent on his kids to help in different ways, on some of the social service agencies, and at the end of his life, hospice," Giancola says
"I use this to tell students, even those who think they don't need other people, as human beings we are social creatures who need and are connected to other people."
These days, Giancola's time mainly belongs to others. His big priority, friends and students say, is spending time with his wife and two young children.
If he's not with them, he's almost always on a service trip, volunteering with groups such as the Red Cross or Stop Hunger Now, or an informal group that helps the homeless. He is also deeply involved in the West Raleigh Rotary Club, of which he is president this year.
At NCSU, his office has five staff members, but its efforts are leveraged by another 100 or so of the university's faculty and staff who help as volunteers.
CSLEPSs also helps leverage the work of nonprofit groups such as Stop Hunger Now, and its work is magnified in another way because other universities have begun copying some of its programs.
Giancola says people often ask why he hasn't quit to start his own nonprofit group.
In his current job, though, he can have the same kind of direct impact -- by helping pack meals, say, or getting houses built -- plus he gets to help thousands of students find how their own lives are linked to the rest of the world.
"Mike understands that if you engage people, they'll go forth and inspire and engage others," Buchanan says.
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