John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

When and Why Should We Urge our Students to Get Engaged with “Service”?

November 18, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner
I wish I had performed “service sooner than I did!

All during my undergraduate years no official of my college ever said to me, directly or indirectly, that I had any obligation to provide “service” to my fellow citizens locally or in national service. In retrospect, I find this hard to believe now given all the emphasis in high school, and often before, and then to a lesser extent in college, to urge developing citizens to perform some types of service.

I find it particularly hard to believe that I was never encouraged to do so when I consider that I started college just 16 years after the greatest exhibition of service in the history of the US, that of World War II when over 16 million Americans served in the armed forces.

The year I started college was also the first year of the presidency of John Kennedy who so famously exhorted us to “ask not what our country can do for you, but what can you do for our country.” But still, no faculty member, student affairs staff member (because they didn’t exist at my college in that era) or fellow student, ever said “John, how about engaging in service….?

It wasn’t until several years after undergraduate school that I was finally introduced to “service” and this was not an invitation to “volunteer” but rather a direct order to perform service. I was on active duty in the United States Air Force and on my first day of duty at my first (and last) permanent duty station, at Shaw AFB, South Carolina. My squadron commander, who had my record and educational transcripts open before him on his desk, informed me that I “will perform community service” which he defined as doing part-time teaching on a local branch campus of the University of South Carolina.

I think about this as I write around Veterans’ Day, 2013. Regretfully, I missed the annual Veteran’s Day commemoration in front of the courthouse in the little North Carolina town where I live. I really look forward to gathering with my fellow “vets” and using this day as a special time for reflection on what this experience meant for me. I missed it because two of my colleagues and I were working in the context of a campus visit, a college that was not celebrating the day as an official holiday.

So this year I am reflecting, in part, in this writing.

Many of my readers, I assume, have the opportunity to advise students to consider engaging in either volunteer service activities or enrolling for service learning courses in which some of the mandatory content is non- remunerative performance of service duties. Is this kind of encouragement something we should be giving to all our students? What about those that are already doing this on their own? Or what about many of our students who already got very engaged in service work during high school? And what about our armed forces veterans who may have recently returned from providing service that the rest of us can hardly imagine doing ourselves? And what about our adult students who have already had so many service experiences in their communities?

Well, I think there are a lot of students still left! And it would be my hope that none of them would have to wait until they are almost 23 years old, as was the case with me, before anyone suggests to them they perform service.

This reminds me of a visit I made with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, to some dear friends of ours in Great Britain. They took us to visit an ancient priory in a medieval British market town. Behind the ruins of the priory there was a cemetery and it was strewn with trash. Right next to the priory and cemetery was a school. So in my very American culturally biased manner, I asked him why didn’t the school organize its students to come over and clean up all the unsightly debris? And he responded to me: “Oh, John, that is such a typically American notion of “voluntarism”. We Brits don’t believe in that. Instead, what we do is to organize a government “scheme” to provide public “works” as a means to create employment—in this case for people to pick up the trash.”

Well, culturally biased notion about the value of service or not, it is one I am still going to maintain.

The point of this posting is just to suggest to my readers to keep in mind that for some students it might be a good idea for us to suggest to them that they get involved in some kind of service work if they haven’t already. The possible outcomes are many:

  • increased understanding of the differing circumstances of others and the many ways our society does or does not work to the advantage/disadvantage of various groups
  • making new friends with those engaged in the same service work
  • opportunities for interaction with faculty and staff outside of class
  • the gratification that comes from helping others
  • opportunities for personal growth
  • opportunities for the focused reflection that accompanies service learning
  • rethinking one’s own priorities
  • being influenced in career decision making

As I think back on my own military service as an Air Force psychiatric social worker, I reflect on these outcomes:

  • appreciation for the merits of compulsory national service
  • travel to and living in parts of the country I would never have voluntarily chosen on my own and the value I derived from this forced introduction
  • meeting fellow Americans I would never have met otherwise
  • choosing my life’s vocation (college educator) as a result of being ordered to perform community service
  • observing the power of public policy on changing societal beliefs and behaviors by witnessing the implementation of the Civil Rights Act in South Carolina
  • gratification from helping hundreds of my patients
  • the lessons I learned from seeing how the amazing degrees of serious responsibility given to the troops contributed to significant maturation and development of citizenship
  • challenging m own prior prejudices about military service, personnel and thinking
  • the vastly greater understanding, learning and knowledge I gained of the extraordinary variety of human behaviors
  • skills in assisting fellow citizens, and ultimately my students in periods of transition, stress, anxiety and depression
  • an understanding of the meaning of organizational “mission” and how that translates to one’s personal mission within organizational contexts
  • realization that there is a bigger picture out there of larger national interests that have to take priority over my own personal interests at times in my life
  • and so much more. 

I am so glad I “served” and I want more of our students to serve at something!

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