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Editorial: Students must reconsider how service fits into their lives

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This article was originally posted by The Daily Northwestern here.

Rovik Robert, Columnist
October 25, 2015 •

We all can agree that college provides some of the best memories we get in life. From extracurriculars to academics, much of what makes college great is the fact that we are able to have experiences that will last a lifetime. Beyond that, everything we do in college builds our character and allows us to transform into mature adults. Yet worryingly, Northwestern students do not seem to make the effort to do community service, and when they do, they do so indirectly in the form of philanthropies that are less effective in helping students glean a greater understanding of the world around them.

Let’s first address the following question: What’s the role of volunteering and community service in our society? Our world is a complex one, where people are driven by incentives and utility. Most of the time, this equates to an individualistic manner of living — what can I do to improve my state of being? Yet among all this ambition, there exist communities that have fallen through the cracks — people who have either gotten the short end of the stick or lost their way. Sometimes we talk about communities that lack a voice. To help these communities, nonprofits and charities take on huge costs. Without volunteers, the equivalent volunteer wage of $23.07 would have to be paid to employees. Volunteers are a necessity for many charitable groups.

So clearly, community service and volunteering are important. But how do we approach it at NU?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteering rate is lowest for people just about to enter the workforce, namely upperclassmen and recent college graduates, with a volunteer rate of 18.7 percent. On NU’s campus, there are numerous clubs and groups that claim to promote community service. From service groups to advocacy groups, it would appear that the campus has a strong culture of community involvement. Yet, I question if that’s actually the case.

Because NU comprises 8,405 undergraduates, it would be unreasonable to make sweeping claims about students’ view of community service. That said, we can look at quantitative evidence to get a picture. The city-wide event NU Gives Back had about 470 people sign up last year, and although that’s a record number for them, that number (which also included staff and alumni) is but a small proportion of the student population.
The University hasn’t released many statistics on the level of community involvement on campus and the college climate toward it, but I have some thoughts on why community service is not taking greater precedence in the lives of students.

For one, it is becoming more and more acceptable to consider philanthropy (essentially fundraising) as a substitute for volunteer work. Students may consider buying pork buns in the Technological Institute or attending a Greek organization’s event and paying $5 as their contribution to the community. While philanthropy goes a long way in helping organizations that need aid, it in no way reduces the need for volunteers and actual involvement. Many Greek organizations are starting to realize this and are modifying their service strategies. In Lambda Chi Alpha, as the vice president for philanthropy, I overhauled the system to ensure brothers commit an equal amount of direct service and philanthropy.
As a result, brothers have shown a better awareness of the issues behind food scarcity and the importance of Feeding America’s work, only because they directly worked with the organization as opposed to simply raising money from the comforts of the campus. Some philanthropies result in students focusing on events so much that participants forget who the beneficiary even is.

While there are other reasons behind the lack of direct community involvement, the general attitude of college students is likely the largest. We want to think we are doing good work but still want to remain comfortable in the college bubble. The truth is that community service is all about being uncomfortable; it’s about realizing that there are needs in this world that have to be addressed and that we need to step up to help communities gain access to a decent quality of life.

By making volunteering an option now, we instill in ourselves the habit of being involved in our communities. That’s the best gift you can give your adult self. As the saying goes, if not now, then when?

Rovik Robert is a McCormick sophomore. He can be reached at rovikrobert2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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