Beyond the Party Image: Students as Volunteers
BOSTON — On any given day, college students around the United States spend hours volunteering at local schools, shelters, and hospitals. They help kindergartners learn the alphabet, or assist the physically handicapped. And it doesn't stop there: Over spring break, 26 students from Boston College drove 15 hours to Virginia to work at a Habitat for Humanity site.
But these acts of student kindness rarely go acknowledged and are often overlooked in the media. The issue that does seem to make it into the news is alcohol and how students frequently abuse it. Last year alone, four student deaths associated with alcohol became well-publicized stories with the help of coverage by national radio and newspapers.
Don't get me wrong. These deaths are tragedies and should be looked into. But the fact remains that students do more on campus than just drink. Contrary to news reports, we want to be involved in the community we call home for four years. We want to share the knowledge we've gained during our time at school, and we also want to learn from the experiences we have with those around us.
At Boston College, a program called 4-Boston combines volunteerism with reflection. Each week, more than 300 students volunteer for four hours at various sites in and around Boston. Once a month they get together to talk about their experiences. Joanne Nititham, a senior, has volunteered at the Jackson Mann Community Center since her sophomore year. This semester, she gets up every Monday morning to assist immigrants with passing the GEDs, learning to write, and doing math. Sometimes she will stay past her expected four hours; other times she will help out on additional days.
Erin Middendorp, a junior at Brown University and a member of the Brown Student Athlete Advisory Board, volunteers at the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School in Providence, R.I., for several hours a week. "Each [athletic] team spends time with the kids, tutoring them and mentoring them," she says. While at the school, the Brown basketball players help the first- and second-graders with their homework and classwork.
Students have also been giving up their breaks to work on service projects around the country. Groups like Penn State's Alternative Spring Break Club lead trips to Harrisburg, Pa., and Washington, D.C., where students volunteer at AIDS clinics, soup kitchens, and food banks. At Boston College this spring, more than 350 students ventured down to the Appalachia region to work with a variety of groups to build houses, clear streams, and help residents.
People volunteer for their own reasons: The gift of working with the handicapped and seeing the smiles on their faces; the laughter of a second-grader; or the joy of helping someone pass a high school equivalency exam.
The one unifying reason we volunteer as much as we do is that these small rewards, rather than the money from a job, are far more lasting and worthwhile. Volunteering has become a key part of college life - along with studying and socializing. Yes, some students drink, and yes, sometimes they do it excessively. But many of us are involved in our communities and are interested in what goes on beyond our borders. It's time to recognize that commitment and to focus on the positive aspects of today's college life.
* Christopher Miller, a Boston College senior, volunteers as an EMT at the West Essex First Aid Squad in West Caldwell, NJ. He is also the founder and editor of Dustbowl, the magazine of BC student life.