Highland Park, an inner-city neighborhood in Richmond, might seem a world away from the suburban campus of the University of Richmond. But every semester, through the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement’s Build It program, about 150 Richmond students volunteer in Highland Park’s schools and community organizations.

In January, nearly 150 first-year students were introduced not only to Highland Park, but also to the city of Richmond during UniverCity Day, an annual bus tour that highlights the myriad off-campus learning opportunities available through coursework, research, internships and community service. Students could choose from three half-day tours focusing on the themes of arts, education and environmental sustainability.

Adrienne Piazza, coordinator for events and student outreach at the CCE, said UniverCity Day is designed to pique students’ interest in the city. “We like to do the tour in January because it gives [first-year] students a chance to get their feet under them,” she said. “It is less of an orientation program, and more, ‘I’m ready to go do something.’”

Before the education bus departed, Sylvia Gale, associate director of the CCE, urged its passengers to, “Think about what you see that turns you on to get connected to Richmond,” then to utilize the services of the CCE to get involved. “CCE is the coordinating hub on campus to get you connected to the city of Richmond,” she said. The CCE even provides a free shuttle that runs daily to 30 program sites around the city.

Bill Pantele, former Richmond City Council president and native Richmonder, led the education bus tour through neighborhoods ranging from Windsor Farms, one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest, to Gilpin Court, Richmond’s largest and poorest public housing project.

Along the way, Pantele provided information about Richmond’s public school system, explaining how it is impacted by the fact that Virginia is a commonwealth with independent cities and counties that support their own school systems.

“In the 1960s, Richmond was a battleground for school desegregation,” he explained. Middle-class blacks and whites fled to the neighboring suburban counties, and, “We still have a segregated school system in Richmond as a result.” Of the approximately 22,000 students in the Richmond school system, 90 percent are African American, about 70 percent receive free and reduced lunch, and one in five receive special education services.

Though the challenges are great, they are not insurmountable. Progress has been made in recent years. “Community involvement makes a difference in the schools,” Pantele said. “We are beginning to see results.”

The tour stopped at UR Downtown, a satellite campus in the heart of the city that serves as a hub of community-based service and collaboration. Here, students ate lunch while listening to speaker Miriam Davidow, head of school-community partnerships for Richmond Public Schools.

“Any opportunity that you have to put on your resume that you mentored for three years is amazing,” Davidow said. “It is also an amazing experience for that kid you are mentoring.”

About 40 Richmond students volunteer regularly at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Highland Park, and many others participate in a college mentoring programs at four high schools.

George Boston, a first-year Bonner Scholar from Brooklyn, N.Y., has been volunteering weekly at Overby-Sheppard. “The bus tour made me realize how real the situation is with the poor,” he said. “It is interesting to learn more about it after I have experienced it.”