Santa Rosa's Empire College was among 19 institutions across the nation named finalists for a presidential award for its commitment to community service and volunteerism.

"We were very surprised when we saw our name on the finalist list," said Sherie Hurd, executive vice president for marketing and operations.

The finalists were chosen from among more than 800 educational institutions that sought recognition for their programs. Five received the top award from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that leads President Obama's national call to service initiative, United We Serve, and operates Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Social Innovation Fund.

The award recognizes higher education institutions that focus on "solving community problems and placing more students on a lifelong path of civic engagement."

Empire was recognized for three initiatives: a series of legal clinics by students and staff from the law school; tax preparation clinics hosted by the business school; and the annual campus-wide flu and Tetanus-Diphtheria-Pertussis vaccination clinic.

The law clinics include five areas, Hurd said: elder law, disability law, family law, small claims and a specialized immigration clinic focusing on "U" visas, allowing victims of certain crimes temporary permission to live and work in the United States.

The tax preparation program helped 400 area residents last year, Hurd said, and the vaccination clinic had about 1,000 participants.

"We live in such a wonderful community, it lends itself" to volunteerism, she said. "People who have lived here a while sense that Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are a little tighter knit than other parts of the Bay Area and we try to model that."

The school has about 650 students and about 100 faculty and staff in two schools: business and law. The majority of students, she said, are working professionals looking to change or advance their careers.

The five 2013 winners, announced earlier this week, were Georgia Perimeter College of Dunwoody, Ga.; Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.; the University of Connecticut in Storrs-Mansfield, Conn.; La Sierra University of Riverside, and Nazareth College of Rochester, N.Y.

The full honor roll list is available at

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or