I admit it: I live in a bubble.
As an Alpha Phi Omega brother, I'm required to do at least 20 hours of community service a semester. It's relatively easy to accomplish, considering the opportunities we have around our campus - soup kitchens at Penn churches, Pennevelopes, work-study tutoring jobs in West Philadelphia, the list goes on.
There are many others like me on this campus, APO-affiliated or not. Penn's students are encouraged and enthusiastic about helping out a community. But it turns out we only tend to help our own communities.
For two weeks, I tried setting up a tutoring project for a Wednesday afternoon. I first reached out to my frat, and no one signed up. It's understandable, with class schedules and other service commitments set. So I targeted the freshman in my dorm. I even persuaded my House Dean to pay for transportation and lunch. Still no luck.
My hypothesis for the lame turnout is that the school is located in Northeast Philly.
Penn does an excellent job in running a diverse number of programs in our area. Many of these programs are supported by Civic House. Its Web site says "Civic House promotes mutually beneficial collaborations between the Penn and West Philadelphia communities, and beyond."
But Jessica Januzzi, CH's associate director and coordinator of the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, admitted she couldn't think of a single student-led group affiliated with Penn doing work in Northeast Philadelphia. North Philadelphia is another low-income area - the neglected "beyond" in their mission statement. Jessica believes most Penn students become involved and passionate about West Philadelphia concerns because of philosophy and logistics.
"Students feel more commitment to West Philadelphia . because of the location, and they're interested in becoming a part of the community in general," she explained.
Teach for America, a post-graduation teaching opportunity that four percent of Penn students apply to be a part of, tries to reform and help schools such as Stetson Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia.
First-year member Daniel Turner says his students at Stetson have a huge need for tutors, especially in math. When he was in college in Kentucky (and also a brother of APO), he did not share the typical Penn volunteering experience. He shared rides to go far away from college to volunteer at food banks and after-school programs.
"I don't fault people for wanting to volunteer nearby," Turner says. "But it would be nice if there were more volunteers. . We're in need of good people."
Our generous, Ivy League hands need to travel at most 30 blocks by car to provide academic support. Miles away, Stetson is plagued by unique problems such as a need for community leaders, lack of a nearby campus (Temple is still far) to supply volunteers and large families without time to provide more education after school. It would be difficult for the students to travel to Penn on their own time in order to make our public service that much easier to accomplish.
I remember Daniel asking me over the phone if I had ever tutored before. Yes, not here, I answered, but I have been to West Philly schools. He said he had to ask me that question because it would be a culture shock - Stetson versus Penn. Then I thought about how he deals with his work conditions every morning.
Preeti Rajendran, a College junior, has tutored for two semesters; not surprisingly, in West Philadelphia. What drew her in? A flyer about the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project. WPTP has 250 tutors per semester- the same number of teachers Teach for America placed in Philadelphia!
Would she volunteer in Northeast Philly? "I just love tutoring," she replied.
Rajendran's case points to the effectiveness of waving down freshmen with colored flyers on Locust Walk in raising awareness about West Philadelphia and its needs. Though there is much accomplished, much needs to be done. Our focus should-and can - spread to include those students like Rajendran who would volunteer outside of our Penn radius.
It is not Civic House's job to cater to all the underprivileged areas in Philadelphia. Jessica says the advocacy hub will give equal support and access to any service led by Penn students. However, it is our responsibility to start looking at the bigger picture. Civic House will provide transportation, but we have to be the "drivers."
Not only do we have to jump out of our Penn-nest, but we need to expand beyond the West Philly bubble, too.
Ko Im is a College junior from Hagatna, Guam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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