Universities are cathedrals of higher learning. While the congregants at St. Agatha's may be united through their faith in God, students here are united by their faith in Almighty Education. We place sacrifices on the altar (about 40,000 of them a year), beseech our prophetic professors for their wisdom and lay prostrate every Saturday night before the holy Trinity of Smokes, Blarney and Copa - Gloria in excelsis vino!
Like congregations of faith, students devote a considerable amount of time and energy to serving others. We tutor, mentor, clean, fundraise, build and more. These efforts are noble, but the real world doesn't award A's for effort. Penn is considered a leader in community outreach, but we can - and must - do better.
Currently, there are three different kinds of student-led service at Penn. First, are the philanthropic groups - the charities constantly guilt-tripping you into going to their next event. They bombard you with facebook invites and pretend that getting drunk downtown is truly a selfless endeavor. Only the most heartless bastard could say no to these frenzied philanthropic fundraisers (or a Mormon).
While getting drunk for a good cause is better than just getting drunk for drunk's sake - which, like art for art's sake, is a valid philosophical stance - we shouldn't be fooled into believing that we're saints when we're still a bunch of sinners.
Often, giving money can do much more good than giving time. But too many students are just buying a muzzle for our conscience instead of gaining knowledge about and sympathy for those aided. Supporting a food bank is good, but it isn't seeing hunger first hand, just like camping out for a night isn't experiencing homelessness, either.
Then you have the grassroots activists. The bottomless immorality of capitalism is an article of misguided faith for many bleeding hearts. But just as James admonished Christians that "Faith without works is useless" so too should these (mainly) secular zealots pay heed. Student activism is often a misguided and ineffective response to legitimate societal needs.
Finally, there's community service, which bridges the gap between philanthropy and activism. But not all community-service groups are perfect - far from it.
Many groups at Penn fail to properly train volunteers for their work. Sending out do-gooder students with one hour of training ain't gonna cut it for the streets of West Philly.
When I asked a handful of community-service student leaders how they measured success, most said something along the lines of, "our regular attendance rate" or "how many students participate."
These groups must remember that what matters is the impact they have on the community, not the number of e-mail addresses on their listerv.
But some groups get it, like National Student Partnerships.
Seniors Kelly Asao and Siri Chanbusarakum are the student directors of the NSP West Philadelphia Office at 60th and Osage.
They help community members find jobs, teach basic computer skills, fill out tax forms and more. Crucially, they focus on community impact - not merely student involvement.
"We compile monthly reports to discuss client flow and document volunteer hours spent helping a client," Asao told me over coffee at Bucks. "We also keep track of job interviews - whether jobs were acquired and the number of services offered to the client ."
Around then, an African American man interrupted our interview. Gerald Long, a returning seminarian at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, approached the NSP student directors to inquire about connecting his church with their organization.
I later asked Long what compelled him to approach the two girls.
"I overheard these two Penn girls talking about Osage," he said. "Even though [they aren't] black, they had an interest in the community and wanted to be a part of it."
Long was amazed that privileged Ivy Leaguers would willingly venture into the ghetto to help the community.
"Are you telling me that there are students like them who are interested in helping out the black community, helping out West Philly?" he asked.
"They leave the safety of the campus and go out into the community. That's social responsibility."
Yet it's not mere social responsibility. Responsibility connotes simply fulfilling an obligation. But because of aggressive volunteer training and community-impact evaluation, NSP goes above and beyond the call of duty.
Every community-service group has their heart in the right place, but they should get their heads there too. Faith without works may be useless, but work without thought is tragic.
Jim Saksa is a College senior from Toms River, N.J. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You, Sir, are an Idiot appears on Tuesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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