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.