lucy-hu-tutoring
Credit: Catherine Liang

I’m ashamed to say I only started volunteering at Penn at the beginning of my sophomore spring. It had been a huge part of my pre-Penn life, but as soon as I stepped foot on Locust Walk for the first time, I fell victim to the insidious bubble on campus that emanates the facade of self-absorbed busyness.

By sophomore fall though, my formerly surging sense of civic responsibility crept back. I decided to sign up to tutor for the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project.

“Are our consulting clubs so important that we don’t have time to help a middle-schooler learn how to read?”

My first time tutoring hit me like a bag of bricks. We drove 15 minutes into West Philadelphia to arrive at a local middle school, but it may as well have been a different country.

As I sat down with my tutee, I was ready to work on reading comprehension. I wanted to show her how to pick out the main arguments of a passage, or how to read between the lines. But I realized, I had to teach her how to read. We ended up working on sounding out words.

During those 45 minutes, I had no midterms, research work, or club involvements to stress about. My tutee’s ability to read was my only concern.

We hopped back into the van, and 10 minutes later, we were back at Penn. I felt as if I had been re-injected back into a sealed community of oblivious, selfish inhabitants.

I felt guilty. I felt guilty that I had educational opportunities that my tutee didn’t. I felt guilty that 20 minutes ago, I was teaching a middle-schooler how to read, and now, I was sitting in my dorm room in one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Whether you should feel “Ivy League-guilt” is debatable, but Penn students’ unrelenting civic responsibility is not. It is undeniable that you had the opportunity to attend a well-resourced university. Therefore, you have a massive responsibility to use your position and means “to serve mankind,” the premise on which Benjamin Franklin founded our university.

Firstly, Penn students are an amazing resource for West Philadelphia. Everyone has unique and diverse experiences to bring to wherever we want to volunteer. Penn students are smart and ambitious. It is indisputable that we have the potential to positively impact many community groups, if only we tried.

But many don’t. We flock to West Philadelphia from over 100 countries across the world, only to stay within a 10-block radius, not venturing past 45th Street.

“I felt guilty that 20 minutes ago, I was teaching a middle-schooler how to read, and now, I was sitting in my dorm room in one of the most prestigious universities in the world.”

Ironically, our selfishness is communal. As we keep trying to one-up each other’s resume padding, our herd mentality of busyness attempts to vindicate our lack of civic engagement.

But, are our consulting clubs so important that we don’t have time to help a middle-schooler learn how to read?

It’s absolutely arrogant and downright self-absorbed to believe that we are so extremely caught up in our world of exams, board meetings, and coffee chats that we cannot squeeze in time to help someone who could really use it. It’s so selfish to come to West Philadelphia, stay in the Ivy League bubble, and think that our busyness is beyond giving back to the community. It’s time to shed the arrogance and realize that the importance of volunteering is on par with, if not more important than, all our resume-building activities.

Secondly, if helping others is not enough of a reason, do it for the personal rewards of civic engagement. Volunteering for West Philadelphia Tutoring Project exposed me directly to the School District of Philadelphia’s education system. I gained insights into education that I otherwise would not have.

I became less self-absorbed. We are so self-centered; it is killing us. We place unhealthy importance on Penn life, forgetting that the world is much bigger. We think that Monday’s midterm is the entire world. Stress levels rise in our world of club elections. Volunteering gives perspective; helping others places our frustrations in a grander scheme of societal struggles.

Check out Civic House. Or find an organization independent of Penn. We all know that Penn students have the initiative. It’s just about caring a little.

LUCY HU is a College sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is lucyhu@sas.upenn.edu.

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