Learning community service. Brown University programs promote student volunteers
Providence, R.I. — THE spirit of public service is alive on the Brown University campus but needs all the institutional support it can get, school officials insist. While student volunteerism has been growing, so have the ways in which the Brown administration has tried to involve undergraduates in altruistic activities. ``The generous instincts of students have always been there but haven't been called upon,'' says Susan Stroud, the director of Brown's newly established Center for Public Service, which promotes community service and steers interested students toward service-oriented careers.
Brown's president, Howard Swearer, explains: ``We wanted to take a few positive steps to encourage and recognize service. Society as a whole may not be encouraging students to think in this direction.''
The Center for Public Service is only one of the fronts on which Brown has been fighting the stereotypical image of college students - especially those at prestigious schools - as mired in the ``me generation'' mentality of the 1970s and '80s. Even more visible has been the expansion of the Brown Community Outreach program, which in the past year has increased its volunteer ranks from 500 to 800. These students, many of them recruited during a Community Outreach ``Orientation Night'' in the early fall, fan out to almost 60 community organizations ranging from soup kitchens and women's shelters to environmental agencies and homes for the aged. The undergraduates contribute from several to more than 10 hours weekly.
The list of available organizations has nearly doubled since 1985 and features programs created by Brown students, such as ones in which volunteers visit family members of hospital patients or help lower-income families raise food in a community garden.
Brown's curriculum has even taken up community causes. The programs in environmental and women's studies regularly integrate school work with out-of-school service. Independent-study arrangements allow students to develop volunteer projects. One professor has even gotten her play-writing class to write about battered women and those living in prison.
While the students have responded to Brown's initiatives, the question remains whether they are as committed as their university is to public service. Senior Paul Lipson led 11 undergraduates to New York's South Bronx this past summer and helped local volunteers turn almost an acre of desolate land into a community park and garden. ``Our group had a critical mass of people who will do community service most of their lives,'' he reflects. But, he warns, ``I have a feeling that most students who volunteer are looking to do one good thing before leaving college.'' Some students admit to doing social work because it is now more socially acceptable. Others cite the opportunity to meet people unlike themselves, to get a break from studies, or to put ideas from their courses into practice.
But students and administrators agree that public service has to be a ``two-way street'' in order to succeed. Mary Courtney, who runs the Community Outreach program, stresses that volunteering should be ``a quality learning experience'' so that students with good intentions will not get discouraged. Says Mr. Lipson of his plan to make public service a career, ``I can't say I'd be doing it out of charity. I want to do it most of my life because it's enjoyable.''
How much public service will enter the lives of Brown graduates is also an unanswered question. Notes Community Outreach director Courtney, ``I don't say everyone should go out and work in the nonprofit world, but everyone should be aware of the different forces and problems in our community.''
Later this spring, the Center for Public Service will sponsor a presentation by Brown alumni whose jobs in some way serve the public interest. There is room for public service in many careers, the Center's staff emphasizes, from teaching to computer science to working for socially responsible companies.
All who are associated with Brown's service programs admit that something rubs off on those who participate. President Swearer believes that if undergraduates engage in public service activities, ``they will get into the habit'' for later life. Observes senior Beth Conover, who has worked extensively with the lower-income and immigrant populations of Providence, ``When you actually see what's going on in a community, it's harder to ignore it.''
A movement larger than Brown's is also afoot. In 1985, Swearer helped found the Campus Compact, a confederation that has grown to 121 college presidents committed to encouraging public service at their own schools. Their organizing efforts have not been lost on Washington, where they have brought about modest changes in federal funding for student volunteer work.