While many students can attest to emphasizing service work on their college applications, it seems that this focus begins to slip soon after the "submit" button is clicked. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, recently found that overall levels of volunteerism were declining in America - with the lowest levels of service prevalent among 20-24 year olds. With raising college tuition and ever-increasing stress to conform to a specific set of criteria for the job market, it's easy to understand why fewer college students are finding the time to participate in social justice and change. However, there are several reasons that service is invaluable, no matter a student's situation. Not only is it a personally enriching experience that deepens communal connections, fosters new friendships, and allows for each person to contribute towards positive change in their community, is also opens a series of perspectives vital for the next generation of leaders to understand. Here are five (5) reasons that service and social justice work are an irreplaceable component of every college student's education:
1. It makes community visible
America is one of the only countries in the world that enrolls its students in four-year college programs during which they are often removed from their homes. Throughout the course of their studies, students' lives revolve around their classes, their extracurriculars, their friends and the network of streets surrounding their campus. Often, these campuses are isolated from urban centers or foster a peculiar sense of isolation, even within a busy city.
I study at Brown University, located on one of the seven hills of Providence. Aptly named College Hill, it physically towers over the downtown area and the slim but beautiful course of the Providence river. It's a fifteen-minute walk down the slope to reach the abundance of shops clustered around the river's edge, yet going "off the Hill" is considered by many students to be a journey of sizably epic proportions.
While any student who has walked up College Hill in the snow can attest to the fact that it can feel like Mt. Everest, the construction of the mental segregation of the Hill and the rest of Providence has the unfortunate effect of eliding the existence of community members living in other areas of the city. Brown is adjacent to several beautiful, affluent neighborhoods, lined with trees and clean streets. The surrounding population is young, consisting mostly of students, and predominantly white. The only thing that suggests this is a small sliver of a city is the occasional appearance of homeless individuals on Thayer Street, running through the center of Brown's campus.
The reality, however, is that Providence is a flavorful, idiosyncratic, racially diverse city suffering from the tough economic times. To never leave the Hill is to never get a sense of the real Providence community - both of the damage that it has suffered in the financial crisis and the deep sense of pride and history in the city. While off campus events like Waterfire have gained national attention, the two areas might as well be different worlds.
As some of the lucky few in the world to have access to higher education, we have a responsibility to become informed citizens. Becoming aware of the nuances and complexities of your local community is one of the first steps to placing yourself in a national and global context as well.
2. It teaches the meaning of genuine solidarity...
... and strips away the lenses of privilege. The first time I ever volunteered off the hill in Providence, I was warmly welcomed into the home of a Nepali refugee family learning English. Speaking to their eldest son, I excitedly mentioned that he could drive six or seven miles to get to a bookstore that I loved.
"We don't have a car," he mentioned, slightly off-hand, and resumed the conversation. It was a small interaction, but I was embarrassed by my privileged blinders; it hadn't even occurred to me that they might not own one. Coming from a more privileged background meant relearning what I once considered the status-quo to realize that I have had a series of staggering advantages in life. My whiteness, class background, presentation of heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, education and so on have given me a set of privileges that it are sometimes difficult - but always necessary - to step outside of to gain a sense of other people's experiences.
Working for social change demands that its proponents move beyond these confined worldviews. It demands passion for the rights, freedom and equality of marginalized members of society. More than that, it requires not only passion and action on behalf of these communities, but the willingness to engage in a respectful, ongoing conversation about how to listen to and uphold the voices that have been consistently devalued and disregarded by the structural systems we perpetuate. Working alongside those who are accorded far fewer societal privileges quickly strips down the idea of a fair, just society that is so culturally dominant to reveal the reality: multiple institutions deeply embedded in American society contribute to continuous disadvantages perpetuated against those who don't fit society's idea of deserving or representative of success.
From the frustration evident in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen movement to the legislative panels on birth control populated solely by men, it is clear that those attempting to stand for the rights of others often fail to incorporate their voices. Working in any good organization for social change teaches you not to speak for someone else, but to raise your voice with them.
3. It shows the reality of organization
As Andy has previously pointed out on this blog, social change is hard. It requires perseverance, determination, and continuously rising above failures to celebrate every victory you can get. It also necessitates an incredible amount of organizational capacity. Not only is seeing the power of community organization in action great practice for later in life, no matter your eventual profession, but it reveals two things:
- The amount of work it takes to successively create a cohesive, continually running organization - particularly when it requires funds/donations/grants to run. While you can analogize this work to any aspect of a well-organized life, it is particularly useful to show the multiple layers of mechanisms to get any venture off the ground. Entrepreneurs in particular can learn more than they might anticipate from the model of service, nonprofit, and student-run organizations.
- Creativity - and the ability to subsequently act on it - is one of the most important tools in any endeavor. The Capital Good Fund's model requires creative thinking from start to finish. The concept of a grassroots, educational, individual- and community-level way to fight poverty, the marketing and financial wrangling to support the loans we give and overhead for the organization, and the flexible educational model that needs to be adapted in creative ways to each client's needs, all require flexible, imaginative approaches essential to the survival of the firm and wellbeing of its clients.
4. It fosters empathy
Community service and social justice cannot be conflated, but neither can they be disentangled. One of the most important things it does, on a visceral level, is promote empathy.
While I would closely question the metrics and demographics of recent studies that claim empathy has fallen in the newest generation of college students, it's fairly obvious that society at large could always benefit from a more empathetic population. It's hard to empathize with statistics - 7.3% unemployment, 15% of American people living below the poverty line, 1 in 6 Americans facing hunger - but to get close and personal with the very real effects of that poverty has a profound impact that never quite fades away. The increasing physical and social geographic segregation of income means that it's easy to never have this tangible interaction with low-income, racial minority, or otherwise marginalized communities. The paradigm of division even found in little Providence, Rhode Island can be seen throughout the country.
This separation is a dangerous situation on both an individual and national level - the increasing invisibility of marginalized communities, or even communities different from the "standard" American Dream-esque life, make it more difficult to realize that the American experience comprises of multitudinous experiences that are not all given equal weight in the eyes of the law, legislature, and cultural narratives. Communication and interaction are the first steps to remedying this widening divide. And in practical terms, your college experience is the best place to start doing this - not only do student service organizations abound on any campus, but your time is far more flexible than it will be in a working situation.
5. It is always worth it
Say what you will about David Foster Wallace, but his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon students, "This is Water", points out that a university education makes visible the social and cultural atmosphere that we breathe in, every day. Part of this atmosphere is the existence of unequal structures that tilt vastly in the favor of some over others, and while being educated about it from peer-reviewed articles and lectures by accredited professors provides a solid theoretical grounding in inequality, getting on the ground and actively working to combat those structures on a practical level can - and arguably should - be just as equal a part of students' education. It's an education that our society desperately needs going forward: knowing how to empathize, to translate that empathy into action, to make that action matter, to make others believe that it matters.
But to make others believe, we must first do it ourselves. The formula for social equality is still up in the air. It's up to us to make it something real. Donating even just half an hour per week to a cause can make a bigger difference than you know. Service work is so much more than padding for a resume - it's a gateway to changing your community; your nation; your world.