Recently I heard a quote from Jacques Maritain that said, “The individual exists for society, but society exists for the person.” I thought this quote summed up our whole semester in Community Engagement very well and was a great starting point for explaining what an “active citizen” truly is. Together, we all make up society, a community of individuals. But the very word community implies that we are united together. We each individually have our own joys and our own struggles. To be an active citizen of this community, we need to care about each other. Being an active citizen in this community, as opposed to just one of the individuals that make it up, means that we realize that the individuals that make it up are more than just that. They are people worthy of dignity and respect. They are worthy of our thoughtful, respectful and responsible service to them. To be an active citizen is to let the reality that each person is worthy of dignity and respect penetrate your every word and action.
This can be seen when moving along the active citizenship continuum. First, you are just a member of the community. You are one of the individuals who makes it up. You see the other individuals around you, but you don’t care too much about them as people. Then, as you begin to care more about these people and have more respect for them you may start to volunteer in your community. The word “volunteer” implies signing up for some sort of service opportunity. This is a great way to be a volunteer and help those in need and your community at large. I would also argue though, that a volunteer would be the kind of person that recognizes other’s personhood so they are ready to help when others need them. This kind of person would offer to help an older person struggling to carry their groceries to the car or would get up to open the door for a mom pushing a stroller.
After you are a volunteer, you move towards being a conscientious citizen. You educate yourself on issues in your community so that you can better address them. For example, if you volunteer at a homeless shelter, you would ask questions like, “Why are these people that I am serving here- what are the causes of homelessness in my community?” and “Is there a better way to be serving them-how can we best break the cycle of homelessness in this community?” Or, for another example, you may have a friend who struggles with anxiety. To become a conscientious citizen and a better friend, you would educate yourself about anxiety. This way, you could better respect and love your friend. Finally, through service and education, you become an active citizen. An active citizen is someone who doesn’t wait for opportunities to serve to present themselves. An active citizen actively seeks out ways to help those around them and to better the community, whether that be in an organized service opportunity or in their everyday lives.
In Robert Coles’ “A Call to Service,” he shares the story of a man who served by volunteering at a nursing home with one of his friends. When the local newspaper wanted to write about his service, he did not want them to call his work “service.” Instead, he thought of his work as a “person-to-person thing” and “being friendly to those who aren’t having the best of times.” Although this was organized service, or volunteerism, at its core, it was the meeting of two human persons in solidarity. It was meaningful because of the connection made, the joy given and received and the hope that it provided. This is how true community is built and fostered in society.
Service only makes sense in the context of community. In Block’s Introduction he says, “We are in community each time we find a place where we belong.” Service is often doing something- helping to build a house or serving a warm meal at a homeless shelter- but there is something deeper going on. When you are more than just a volunteer, when you have been educated on this issues surrounding your service and you keep consistently showing up, you start to stand in solidarity with those you are serving. You both, the server and the served, start to feel as though you belong where you are and this is the start of a community.
Then, if you have a community, you have citizens of this community. There is a choice- you can choose to be an active or an inactive citizen. Everyone in the community can choose to be an active citizen if they wish- it is not dependent on resources, state in life, anything. An active citizen cares for the people of the community because they recognize that people deserve dignity and respect. If one is able, this conviction would also lead them to volunteer in their community. When one volunteers, they will encounter, or may become themselves, a leader.
Leadership can take so many different forms. When people think of leaders they may think of presidents, outspoken people or people who have told them what to do in the past. Real leaders however, have many different styles of leading. Some lead by example, some by taking charge and some by delegating. There are countless other ways to lead. All leaders seem to have one thing in common though. In Northouse’s “Introduction to Leadership” he says, “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.”
When participating in organized service, it is important to have some leadership so that things get done. A person, or a group of people, are needed to keep the group on track, motivated and making progress. When this leader is leading service though, it is important that they are not just a leader, but a servant leader. In Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay “The Servant as Leader,” he says, “The servant-leader is servant first… it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” When someone is leading service, they are not there to tell the others what to do. They are there to serve alongside everyone they are guiding. Later, Greenleaf describes how you would identify a servant-leader- they are the kind of person who inspires the ones that they serve to become servants themselves. True servant-leaders are the active citizens of their community that inspire others to become active citizens.
When a group of active citizens get together to engage in service in their communities under the leadership of a true servant leader, they are more likely to inspire real social change. When there is a development of the individual and the group as leaders, they enact change for the common good in their community according to the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. Sometimes service is working to alleviate a present problem- providing the hungry with food, giving clothes to those with no means to buy new ones, etc… But the ultimate goal should not be to just give someone what they need to survive for now. It is important that people are also working to get to the root of the problem- to look at the system that is contributing to the problem- and work to change that. The goal should be more than just to survive, but to thrive.
Why would some people decide not to become active citizens if it being one could bring about so much good in the world? The problem with being an active citizen is that it takes effort and time. You have to commit to show up to volunteer or to just be present to people; and like it or not, this will take time away from all the other things you need/want to do. Thankfully, we attend a university that recognizes that being active in your community is important and people should take time to do that.
I love that the motto of the University I attend is “Ut Prosim.” I was talking to my dad about it over Thanksgiving break because he is fellow Hokie. The general feeling I get from him is that the majority of people felt like “Ut Prosim” was for after graduation. He told me about one of his friends who became very active in his community after graduation. Most of his friends engage in their communities in some way now, especially through their kids’ activities and schools. From what I can tell, Virginia Tech really does have much more of an emphasis on doing service now (pre-graduation) than it has in the past which is so good- progress towards a more service minded university is really happening! At the same time, I wonder how many graduates really do want to make service a priority in their lives. Yes, Ut Prosim is an aspiration for student learning here at Virginia Tech, but how are we learning it? In SERVE, we get to take two classes on service, but most of the rest of the university will never take a class about service.
Since we have required classes that are not necessarily related to our majors anyways (CLE’s), wouldn’t it make sense to have one of them be about service? This class could either be about service in general (and make known to students the different opportunities to serve on and around campus), or it could be about what service could look like within your major or college. It could help the students see that their degree is not just for them. And it would help students to see that you can serve in any major or with any degree. You can serve with a degree in Finance, Packaging Systems and Design, or Chemistry. Many colleges require a Freshman Seminar class- this could be Virginia Tech’s version of it.
While having the whole university take a class about service sounds like a great idea on paper, it may not pan out so well in real life unfortunately. It could become like the alcohol class you have to take before starting as a freshman- just a box to check, not something to take seriously. You would also have to find a lot of teachers to teach these classes, and make sure they were teaching the information correctly and passionately. So this may not be the most practical way to spread a love for service through this university.
A more practical way to get people excited about service is to talk to them about it personally and to invite them to participate along with us. It would be great if VT Engage or other service organizations were out on the drillfield or in front of Squires either every day or most days of the week. This would give students the opportunity to ask questions and learn about opportunities around their schedule. Sometimes when I am explaining something about SERVE or something else, I will ask people if they know what VT Engage is. Most people say yes, although they have never done service with them because they probably do not know how to sign up. I think having student representatives or administrators out being a face for the organization would encourage many more students to sign up for service opportunities. I think that is the most important thing we could do to get people interested in service. People need to experience service for themselves and then they will see how good it can be. I would not be surprised if at least half of the student population currently holds negative attitudes towards service because they have either never done it and are intimidated by it or because they had participated in “meaningless” service in high school to “check the boxes” of their school service requirements.
When I look back at the past semester, I feel as though I have moved towards being a conscientious citizen. I have learned a lot about service in this SERVE class. I have thought about things that I never thought about before- such as the negatives of service and how when service is done, it really needs to be done in the context of the system of the community. I can now apply this to my service and hopefully serve more effectively and respectfully in the future. There have been many times however, that I felt like I had almost moved backwards on the continuum. In high school, I volunteered with my school’s Options Program for students with special needs. I was a regular volunteer that was educated on the issue of special education. The teachers trusted me to work with the students more independently because I had been volunteering for such a long time. Since I was very involved with this, I was not only educated on special education issues, but I was educated on the students themselves. I knew what would discourage them and encourage them. I was able to help them better because of this. It all felt very personal, and I felt like I was truly an active citizen in that part of my life. There are so many reasons that I like college better than high school, but I do miss a few things. I miss volunteering in the Options Program and I miss the kinds of opportunities you get to serve in a smaller community. You can get involved with Special Olympics here at Virginia Tech, but that is a once a week service opportunity. In high school, I was able to interact with these students every day and in an academic setting.
I volunteered this semester with Reading Hour because it seemed sort of similar to being a peer mentor in high school, so I figured I’d enjoy it. I was truly just a volunteer for this though. I am not too educated on what children’s literacy is like here in the New River Valley. Over time, I was able to get to know one student better because she would usually come read with me, but talking with someone for 45 minutes a session, for about 12 or 13 sessions in the semester really is not much. I did not know how to best serve her because I really did not know much about her.
Unfortunately, I did not like volunteering with Reading Hour as much as I had hoped. I always think I will enjoy working with small kids, but I usually find that I don’t. From my work as a swim coach, I have found that I really enjoy working with older children (age 9+), but I find working with small children challenging. Next semester, I want to volunteer differently. I am passionate about food insecurity and homelessness, so I could see myself getting involved with Campus Kitchen or Appalachian Service Project (or both!). Starting at either of those next semester, I would just be a volunteer again. Over time, if I liked them, I would become more educated on the issues, especially how the issues affect the New River Valley, and I would begin to grow in community with others volunteering there too. This would move me along the active citizenship continuum towards being a more active citizen.
I have had many experiences of service in my life that were just “okay.” Some of them I did because I needed service hours for a class, some of them I did because I thought I would like them- and didn’t, and some of them were just unsatisfying for whatever reason. Thankfully though, there is a “type” of service out there for everyone. I believe that there is a kind of service for everyone in this world.
The service experience that sticks out for me the most was when I was a peer mentor in high school. I know I’ve talked about it before in SERVE essays and journals, but that is because I loved it so much and am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to serve in that way, especially in high school. The peer mentors would work with the students in our school’s “Options Program” for kids with severe special needs. Over the years, I got to work with a lot of different students in the program, but in my junior and senior year I got to work a lot more with this one girl in the program who was in my class. Over time our relationship evolved from that of mentor and mentee to a real friendship.
She had social and learning disabilities, but she also had a physical disability that made it hard to walk and she either had to use a walker or her scooter to get around. I would walk with her to class and the classes we walked to together were in a hallway of the school that was unfortunately not wheelchair accessible from the inside. So we would go all around the school in whatever weather. Sometimes getting her scooter over a little bump in the doorframe and out the door was a struggle and she would get really frustrated and start crying loudly. This would happen when she would get frustrated about other things too. Sometimes I knew what to say to console her. A lot of times I didn’t and the other kids that were in the hallway would just look at us. That was one of the hard parts about working with her- the uncertainty of how she would react to things and how to handle it.
One of the classes I worked with her in was our Practical Law class. One day we were doing a mock trial and she volunteered to play one of the roles. I think she was the judge. I can’t remember if she made a joke or if someone else said it and she just thought it was funny, but she started laughing the most joyful laugh. And she looked all the way across the room straight at me. It was like she wanted me to share in her joy. That moment made all of the difficult ones feel worth it. Those were the moments that she built her trust in me. And then when she was experiencing joy she wanted to share it with me because she trusted and respected me. It was very humbling and I definitely felt alive in that moment.
Another moment I can remember “feeling alive” rather unexpectedly was when I volunteered at a homeless shelter near my house. My youth group from my church was cooking and serving dinner and playing with the kids there for the night. I got assigned to chopping radishes for the salad. That sounds pretty boring, but as I got into it, I found that I was really enjoying it. I must have been stressed out about something at the time, because I remember it being very calming- therapeutic even. After I was done chopping radishes, I was making sandwiches for the next day.
I have also enjoyed stacking chairs after event for as long as I can remember. I enjoyed setting up my pool for swim meets. I have enjoyed service that relates to construction. I went on a Habitat trip about a month ago and went to WorkCamp with my church the past two summers. I have enjoyed painting, cleaning and building things. I have found it so rewarding to learn new skills from these construction service trips.
All of these events relate because I really like the kind of service where I can see progress over time. When you are setting up or cleaning up from an event, chopping radishes or painting a wall you can physically see the progress. You also feel very productive because you are physically making things happen through your work. My work as a peer mentor was not primarily physical labor (although sometimes it was since she needed things carried, doors opened, a helping hand to walk down the stairs, etc…), but I was able to see progress over time. I worked with her in classes that lasted a whole semester and I was with her everyday. I got to witness her progress in her classes, my progress in becoming a better mentor to her and our progress in becoming friends. I know not all meaningful service opportunities will provide the opportunity to witness progress, but this does point me in a good direction when choosing service opportunities. This also tells me that I would feel more alive in my service if I choose some service opportunity to work with for an extended period of time so that I would be able to see progress.
Service, and volunteering in general, is more often than not viewed as “good.” How could helping someone else in need ever be bad? You are meeting a need, you are giving of your time, you, and service, are good. However, service can be bad. It can be easy to overlook this fact because we don’t want to call ourselves, and others, “bad.” When you take a step back though, it is easy to see that there can be real negatives to service. Whether it be in the intentions, in the action or in the follow through, there are many things that can go wrong with service- many ways that it is not totally “good.”
The main reason I think service becomes not-so-good is because we live in a culture that demands instant gratification. Because of this, we may see a need out in the world and immediately start trying to fix it without thinking it through first. Do we have the right intentions? Does this community even want our help? Are we getting to the root of the problem? How might we use the strengths this community already has instead of just trying to tackle their needs? Are we willing to follow through after service or set up a system that will support the changes we made so the service is not just effective, but sustainable? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. Service does not have to be bad! We just need to look at it a little closer before we begin.
The first problem with how “good” an act of service is lies in the server’s intentions. High schools, organizations and clubs all sometimes require “mandatory service hours.” If the primary reason someone decides to serve is get a form signed or a box checked, they probably do not want to be there very much. This will show in how they serve- their service will be less focused, less thoughtful, less urgent. On the flip-side, some people may decide to do service just because how it makes them “look” or feel. Doing service just for the Instagram picture, the praise of others or to feel good about yourself is not really the point either.
These intentions can undermine the very point of serving before you even begin. Yes, maybe you are still meeting the need that needs to be met, but service is about more than just meeting a need. Service is about building relationships in communities and letting the served know they are respected and valued. Doing service without this intention does little for the served and even less for yourself.
Another problem arises when we do not put the community we are serving first. They know more about themselves than we know about them, so they are better suited to know their needs and possible solutions to their problems. The problem is, we forget that very quickly. We think that we know best; and it can be very easy to jump right in where we see fit. You would think that the community being served may stop the volunteers right there and say, “Hold on! We would like some input on this!” But this can be very hard for a community to say because if they are truly in need, and someone wants to help them, how could they resist? When the group trying to help is offering money and resources the community needs, they will probably allow the group to do what they want, for fear of losing the resources. This is unfair to the community in question and takes away from real change that could be happening in that community.
A community should not only dictate what service should be done, but have a real working part in this service. The community should be working alongside the volunteers, coming up with a solution to the problem and putting that solution into action. This is important because it will increase the likelihood that whatever work is being done will continue in the future- the service will be sustainable. If volunteers come into a community, stay for a few hours or days working on a problem, and leave without keeping the community truly informed on what they were doing, the community will have no way of knowing how to continue or sustain this work in the future. The service performed will therefore be a waste of both time and resources.
The community in question also needs to be analyzed before service can begin. Every community has strengths. Oftentimes, these strengths can be used for good, but aren’t because it takes time and effort to connect all of the strengths and assets of a community in beneficial ways. There may be many different groups working on the same issue in a community. If all these groups worked together, how much more they could get done! It is also counterintuitive to utilize the strengths of a community when you are trying to solve a problem. Because we are impatient, we just want to fix the problem. Taking a step back to look at where the community is thriving or could thrive is not the natural first step in problem solving. The use of preexisting strengths in a community though, can save time and resources, and can allow for a better infrastructure in the future.
It can be very easy decide to do some sort of service in a community when the plan is to do it for a few hours, a day or even a week. You are committing yourself to a set amount of time. We need to realize however that doing service is not just about the act of serving for five hours on a given Saturday. The point of doing service is for that service to have a lasting impact on the community. A community may just need a wall painted, so you go and do that. The fact that they needed the wall painted though, means that there is some sort of financial or physical need present. It is important to keep in touch with this community to see what else they may need help with in the future. Or maybe you repaired something that was broken. It is important to teach the community members how to repair it, so that if it ever happens again, they will either know how to fix it themselves or be able to call on you again.
When you think about all the ways that service can go awry, it can be a little depressing. It can feel like we will never be able to serve well, which may cause you to think, “why bother?” Unfortunately, we are imperfect people. Our attempts at serving those around us will be imperfect too. We will sometimes go in with the wrong intentions, think we know more than others, or fail to follow through after serving a community. We may forget the importance of the community we are serving and discredit their knowledge, strengths and abilities. We can get very impatient and jump into service without putting much thought into it- if we are even getting to the root of the problem. It is very possible for even a good work of service to do some harm in a community. It is important to remember though, that as long as we think about these things in advance, we may not be perfect, but we are showing care for the community we are serving and we are engaging responsibly. Service is not always good, but that does not mean it has to stay that way. We have the power to make a difference in the way we serve and be an example to those around us.
One of the things that I have really appreciated about college so far that is that there truly is a culture of “you do you.” I really do not like that phrase. This is because it practically implies that we should not care about others. It says that we shouldn’t love them enough to help them become the best versions of themselves. However, I don’t have a better way to describe what I have experienced here. There are friend groups, but they aren’t cliques. You can be a part of multiple friend groups and no one thinks anything of it. One friend group usually does not come in contact with others anyways. No matter who you choose to spend your time with, people are generally very respectful of your decisions. This is how life should be lived!
This is not how I felt in high school. At my high school, there were definitely defined friend groups. All of these groups had something like a single story attached to them. Sometimes even a single word was sufficient to describe them- drugs, grades, theatre, basketball. As seniors, we were given the privilege of eating in the senior cafeteria. Groups sat in there together as if their single story was like a net, gathering them all together and not allowing them to separate. This net also kept others out- it would have been strange for someone from one group to go eat with another.
When this mentality is drilled into you whether you like it or not, you are surprised by people when you actually meet them. I was usually pleasantly surprised by people from different “single story” group when I actually got to know them. I was also a little embarrassed like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said she was when she got to Mexico and actually witnessed the people there. Defining a group of people by a single story causes us to apply this story to each person of the group as “their story.” When we actually meet them though, we find that that’s not the case. People should not be defined by a single story or a single aspect of themselves. People are so complex and unique that a single story does not begin to do them justice.
I feel like I was in the “single story group” of “smart girls.” We were the ones who others thought cared too much about school and only talked about school or other “nerdy” things. There is a kernel of truth to this, I suppose. When you looked at all of us as a whole though, we were all very different. We played different sports, or did different activities. We had different family lives and personalities and senses of humor. If someone avoided us, or we avoided others, just because of the “group” we were “in,” that was a dumb decision. There is so much to appreciate about people below the surface level.
After having graduated high school, I wish I had gotten to know other people better. I wish it had been easier to talk to people from different groups. (As a side note though, I have loved that people from my high school who are here at Virginia Tech have all been really friendly to one another. It doesn’t matter now what friend group we were in in high school.) In college, I know I want to try to broaden my horizons. There is so much to learn about people! It would benefit me to meet as many different kinds of people as possible because I am going to have to work with all types of people in the future. Life in general will be so much more interesting with a variety of people around me!