End the community service sham

You don't have to go to a village in the Himalayas to get into college.

High school students, especially those of you applying to college, it's time to have a heart-to-heart about the meaning of community service.

Here's the deal: Chances are, the community you live in doesn't have enough money to pay for everything it needs. Some older community members could use a little company, or some elementary school kids may have nowhere to go after school. The DVDs in the library may need to be catalogued, or the local business owners could use a hand running the town Halloween party. The help may seem a bit random, but it's still needed.

Because you like where you live, and you want to keep it nice – or because you'd like to make it even nicer – you step up, pitch in, and help out people you've never even met before. It goes beyond serving you, it serves everyone. That's community service.

"But dude" you may say, "That's not what I heard community service is about. This dude spent $7,000 to fly to a town in the Himalayas and watch them install a water pump. He says probably nobody else did that, so this will give him a lock on a sweet college!"

To be honest with you, this dude is probably right – there are very few high school seniors with absolutely no plumbing expertise who would "work" on a community service project like that.

But that is a really good thing, because their own community could use their help.

Don't get me wrong: there are thousands of young people every year who donate amazing amounts of time and money to go to poverty-stricken islands and villages to make life better for others. Many of them don't speak the language, they work 14 hour days, and sleep on rock – and they are heroes.

What I continually see, though, are high school students who are convinced that all they have to do to be a hero or to catch the eye of a college is to go overseas. Our "dude" could have been a hero – if he gave the Red Cross the four grand needed for the pump, and spent the rest of his plane ticket on new gym equipment for the Boys Club where he could have volunteered five hours a week.

Of course, there's another big difference. You don't hear about those young people who donate time or money to their local community, because they don't talk about it much – in fact, it's often hard to get these folks to put this information on their college applications.

Why? Because it isn't about them, or their scrapbooks, or filling a college application with a "right" activity – it's about the people they serve. Wherever you serve, whomever you serve, real service only begins when you park your aspirations at the door and give yourself over to the work at hand. That's how parents change diapers, friends forgive one another, grandparents smile when you play the drums for them at age 9. It's why the comics section that flew from your Sunday newspaper gets picked up off your neighbor's lawn. But not by your neighbor.

Do colleges want students who engage in community service? You bet – colleges are communities too, and they'll have a few bazillion things that need to get done. People who show they're willing to make a difference in the community are a great asset to any college. Will they care if it's overseas? Not at all. As long as you hear the call for help across the ocean and genuinely answer, rather than go overseas just to say you went, your application will probably glow with the difference. But, additional local community service would show you understand charity begins at home, and that's not a bad lesson to embrace.

On the other hand, if you make it to senior year with 450 checker games under your belt and the eternal respect of the assisted living center down your block, that power will shine, too – and you can leave the long-distance duty for vacation.

Community service is about seeing what's possible for others, and what you can do to help them realize it. It's an attitude that will stay with you for life and transcend any college application.

Patrick O'Connor is director of college counseling at The Roeper School and the author of "College is Yours in 600 Words or Less."

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