Please note that examples of service projects given in this article aren’t real, but are similar to actual Deerfield trips. This was to avoid condemning any specific project.
At Deerfield, community service has become something of a “must have” for college applications. However, after thinking about community service projects undertaken by Deerfield students, I have come to wonder whether the Common App has affected students’ intentions, essentially defeating the purpose of community service. I worry that we are blinding ourselves to the point where we are less concerned about making a lasting impact and more concerned about finding inspiration for a college essay. In our pursuit of obtaining “impressive” community service, perhaps we fail to tend to the specific needs of the people with whom we work, essentially doing the community a “disservice.”
The ultimate myth regarding community service is that in order to make a lasting impact, one must develop a project that includes a thousand dollar airfare and manual labor. Although traveling to Ghana with a group of prep school students to build a water pump sounds awfully impressive, it isn’t actually the most pragmatic way to help the community. In fact, it is an extremely unconventional use of time and money. By allowing the local citizens in Ghana to build the water pump themselves, that same group of students could have omitted airfare costs, donated the money saved to a community in need, and provided job opportunities for the Ghanaian locals, who often suffer from unemployment.
As students, many of us have come to believe that our greatest contributions to a community in need will stem from our hammer skills or our ability to withstand the hot sun, when, rather, they will stem from our most valuable attribute: our education. At Deerfield we are taught language, economics, business, math, and science — subjects to which a large percentage of the world, especially the Third World, has little or no access. We have to recognize that in many cases we can make a greater and more effective impact from our dorm room. Why are we spending $890 on a round-trip ticket to Guatemala to teach children English for a week, when we could use the money to provide them with computers that would allow us to virtually teach them English for six months?
Some argue that traveling in person to the communities we are helping is crucial, because it enables students to witness the product of their work, therefore heightening their sense of gratification that one “must receive” in turn for community service. They also argue that witnessing community service inspires students to further help the community in question, even after the project has been finalized. I would argue that the purpose of community service is not to give you a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction. Also, if community service is done successfully, you should get that sense of reward regardless of where you are when you’re helping.
Ultimately, I’ve come to realize that a lot of community service today caters more to the needs of and is more beneficial to the volunteer than the target. Although certain trips and endeavors may be humbling and instill a great change in Deerfield students, they may not be the most effective way to instill change in the lives of those who need it most.
I think it is crucial and healthy that everyone, especially coming from a community like Deerfield, feels the humbling experience of witnessing poverty firsthand. Nonetheless, witnessing poverty doesn’t have to include an expensive airfare, and I believe that the Common App’s implied service requirement has skewed the intentions and impact of community service.
To conclude, I would like readers to understand that, in writing this article, I by no means wanted to bash against past community service projects, because I believe that they have made an impact. I also think it is commendable that we take time to help, regardless of our intentions. My objective in writing this article is solely to shed further light on the prospect of modifying future projects, so that they can benefit communities in need more fully, and for us as students to come to terms — honestly — with why we are doing service. Maybe if we do, we will make even greater contributions to the world in which we live.