A `roads' scholar's mission. He preaches a lively gospel of volunteerism
Boston — THE worst part of Wayne Meisel's job is when it's 10:30 at night and he doesn't have a place to stay. Mr. Meisel is a self-appointed campus organizer - a ``roads scholar'' who travels thousands of miles and sleeps on hundreds of couches a year in an effort to help college students around the country learn how to ``get involved'' in their local communities.
Meisel's issue is not apartheid, not nuclear arms. What today's students really need to learn about, says the ebullient 1982 Harvard graduate, is something ``far more basic'' - the skills of leadership and working together, and the spirit of volunteer service to others.
Going into a housing project and tutoring children, being a Big Brother or Sister, or helping in a senior citizens home changes and educates students at a level far more fundamental and powerful than simply reading textbooks about social problems in the comfort of one's dorm room, he says. ``When people ask me why it's important for students to have some experience in community service, I go into a tizzy,'' Meisel says. ``It has to do with human nature ... philosophy ... religion ... America ... with a vision we all share that isn't fulfilled unless we are working in some way to help each other.''
Leading educators have long held that such learning ``outside the classroom'' is as important as formal course work in the college years. It's a ``last chance'' for many students to be exposed to the values of a shared community, they say. Such education, however, is routinely neglected. The gap between campus and community is a main weakness of most colleges today, according to a major study on undergraduate education in America released last month by the Carnegie Foundation. This gap ``isolates the college, reduces the effectiveness of the faculty, and limits the vision of the student,'' says Ernest Boyer, author of the report.
Yet as talk of ``building community'' begins to swirl in faculty clubs across the land, Meisel is already doing something about it. Since 1982, he has visited - often unannounced - 200 schools. He lives and eats with students, goes with them to football games and the library, gets into their famous all-night conversations. Right away, he involves himself in campus outreach groups.
Usually, he finds chaos there: Meetings are canceled. Literacy groups don't talk with hunger-relief, prison, or senior citizens groups. Fund-raisers are poorly managed.
Most significantly, at many schools, the atmosphere isn't right: Too often, Meisel finds, ``you go to a campus and people say, `Hey, community service just isn't a part of what we do here.'''
That's when Meisel goes to work. He becomes coach, manager, counselor, rebuilder - preaches a lively gospel of volunteerism. At Trinity College in Connecticut, he helped sign up 200 new students to a campus volunteer coalition. At Carleton College in Minnesota, he got 300.
After hopping off the train at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Meisel ``talked with every single person interested in service,'' says Kim Morris, a junior. ``We'd been groping for direction. Now we're building a structure that will continue, not die out.''
It's one of Meisel's unorthodox contentions that students today want to get involved, but don't know how. They are either caught, he says, in ``structural apathy'' - caused by a lack of good leaders - or are gripped by ``anxious paralysis,'' where issues such as arms control seem so complex that students feel overwhelmed. ``They don't know what their talents are, they see so few options, and they've got loans, grades, and jobs to think about,'' he says.
Further, the common view of students as selfish and crass is a half-truth, Meisel feels, and is often overblown. College students are behaving in exactly the manner we should expect them to, he says. Madison Avenue is very powerful. The yuppie phenomenon describes a once-idealistic generation that now ``lives to buy.'' There is no Vietnam war causing a questioning of values. The job market is tight.
``Materialism is what the kids are being sold. Blame Madison Avenue - don't always blame the kids.''
While tacitly supporting student activism, Meisel does not get involved. The issues are too divisive, he says, and you can't build a community based on the alienating concept of being politically correct. Students first need a ``community foundation - a place to reflect,'' he says: a place where people may disagree about ``star wars'' but agree to help needy neighborhood children.
Meisel's ``mission'' is due to his upbringing (``my dad's a Presbyterian minister, my mom's a saint''). But the specific idea of service came at Harvard University - after getting cut from the soccer team. On his way ``down to the Charles [River] to cry,'' he suddenly had the idea to form a soccer league for local kids, using Harvard students as coaches. His friends laughed when he took the idea to the dining halls. But in one day, over 150 students signed on. Other effective outreach programs followed: tutoring, sponsoring artists, winterizing houses.
Upon graduation, Meisel hoped to export voluntary service to other schools. But nobody seemed interested. In Washington, D.C., he heard his idea was ``cute, but you're living in the wrong decade.''
He didn't quit, though. He hit the road. Toting a letter of introduction from Harvard president Derek Bok, Meisel hiked from Colby College, Maine, to Washington, D.C., visiting 65 colleges along the way, staying at them anywhere from ``one night to three weeks.''
Nine months, 1,500 miles, and four pairs of shoes later, Meisel found enough support amoung volunteer-funding groups to start the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL), a national ``effort - not organization.'' For the past two years, he's run it out of a four-member D.C. office, and his backpack.
Currently, COOL advises community service groups at 70 schools. ``We don't run anything, or tell people what to do,'' says staff member Julie Scatliff. ``We try to help them find direction.''
``Volunteerism is a spirit,'' says Meisel. It dies if it gets too institutionalized on the one hand, or too ``free'' on the other.
Thus far, Meisel has not bothered campus administrators. ``He's the kind of outside agitator we want to have on campus!'' remarked Joseph Duffey, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
A lack of genuine leadership is the ``biggest problem'' Meisel finds on campus. This does not mean students today don't want to lead. ``There's no lack of students who want to tell other people what to do, who want power, want to be CEOs.''
But such an approach contrasts with the effective community leader, says Meisel - one who takes pleasure in serving, and who ``has seen and felt some of the harshness of this life.''
Colleges today need students who want to lead around a set of ideals, not personal power: ``Students with convictions - who will overcome stage fright and stand up for what they believe.''
For the moment, Meisel has stopped traveling and is updating a workbook for community building that he helped write last year. But he will soon be back on the road. ``It's a little scary. I've been doing this four years.'' His friends are now doctors or lawyers.
But he doesn't doubt the importance of his work. ``I look down the road at the issues.... Young people today don't identify with a church. They are nonaligned politically and don't always see that ideas have consequences.'' With new populations and cultures, ``we'll have to learn how to better get along with each other.''
``These are big problems. That's why I live on the edge.''