A 5-year-old boy named Mason fell off a swing in the Seward neighborhood Tuesday afternoon and hit his head. Within seconds, a muscular young man in a gray T-shirt scooped him up, asked him where it hurt, and brought the conversation around to the important stuff -- baseball.

"You like Joe Mauer?" Brandon Johnson asked as he stepped into the neighboring school building to find some ice. Mason nodded.

Across Minneapolis, hundreds more Augsburg College students sporting the same gray T-shirts -- "I'm an Auggie," they read -- cleaned churches, painted low-income medical clinics and performed other service work. Just as hundreds of Hamline University students had earlier that day. Just as thousands of University of Minnesota students had earlier that week.

The three schools are among a growing number of colleges and universities that now start the semester by throwing all freshmen into community projects -- before they've set foot in a classroom.

Service is an essential part of education, colleges say, and important to this generation of students.

"By doing it right away, an institution shows students its expectations of what their student experience will be," said James Liberman, first-year programs coordinator at the University of Minnesota. "Here, it's an expectation that students incorporate the Twin Cities into their academic and social life."

The number of colleges and universities doing the same has "definitely grown," particularly in the past five years, said Sue Kelman, spokeswoman for Campus Compact, a national group of more than 1,100 college and university presidents committed to civic engagement in higher education.

As a recent University of Minnesota report noted, there is "growing external pressure on higher education to become more community engaged," and many publications now rank how "engaged" students are. But colleges and universities emphasize that the focus on service is either part of a faith-based mission or has happened organically -- often as a result of increasing student interest.

A big job

Augsburg College in Minneapolis and Macalester College in St. Paul have been starting students off with service since the 1990s. Hamline started doing so earlier this decade. The U began its requirement as part of the new Welcome Week, now in its third year.

Getting a few hundred private college students out into the community is one thing. The U deals with a freshman class in the thousands.

Partly because of that size, and partly because of its research mission, the U lets student choose between typical service projects and less-traditional symposiums. This year, about a third of freshmen did projects -- sorting donations at Arc's Value Village, for example -- while two-thirds took part in symposiums.

For example, a group of first-year students toured the Weisman Art Museum, stopping at artwork representing social or political issues, while upperclassmen who have worked extensively in those areas shared their perspective.

The number of "service learning courses" at the U -- and enrollment in them -- has doubled since 2002, a September report shows. Freshman participation in service-oriented clubs has gone "through the roof," since Welcome Week began, Liberman said.

Beyond 'the show'

One-day events at the start of school, "while admirable," cannot stand alone, warned Kelman, of Campus Compact. "What we're about is enmeshing service learning into the entire college experience."

Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow admitted that City Service Day could be seen as "a show at some level." But he emphasized that Augsburg considers the day "simply the beginning of what is the integrated way service is connected to all we do."

Augsburg sees its neighbors as "part of our faculty," he said.

So students aren't simply giving back to the community. They're learning from it.

"Some people even fight off the word 'service,'" Pribbenow said. "It's very important to us that we talk to our students about mutuality and say, 'We will gain as much as we give.'"

The colleges also try to place students in service groups with links to their academic experience. At Hamline, students go out with the same students who will be in their first-year seminars, "so they'll be spending the entire semester with these people," said Marc Skjervem, Hamline's director of orientation and first-year programs.

At Augsburg, a group of students in a theater seminar might end up cleaning at the Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis. Music students might show up at the Cedar Cultural Center.

Johnson, the Augsburg freshman who came to Mason's rescue on Tuesday, was helping at Matthews Community Center in the Seward neighborhood because he's taking a seminar on health and physical education. He's from Hopkins and went to school in Roseville but had never seen that neighborhood in Minneapolis.

"I do agree with giving back to the city," he said, as he iced Mason's head. "I've always liked kids, though, so this one doesn't really feel like a service project to me. It's fun."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168