Our campus, our community?

Through the academic work that we do, and the millions of organizations in which we invest our talents, we isolate ourselves more and more each day within our own sheltered community, the College community. When President Payne said it is a goal of the college to increase civic awareness, he was of course not saying that everyone should know there is an Ephlats concert on Sunday the 13th. He meant that students should be looking beyond the campus for insights into the world.

One college organization is specially designated as the “community service” organization, with the purpose of breaking down the often artificial barriers between the College and its surroundings. In the four years of our lives when we have the potential to be more cut off from the rest of the world than we will ever be again, both geographically and socially, the Lehman Community Service Council students offers the opportunity to be a part of the larger surrounding community, to increase civic awareness, and also to experience why community involvement is so important.

The Lehman Council provides opportunities for student volunteers to participate in a wide range of community service projects, many of which involve personal interactions. A few decades ago, the community service done by students was carried out mainly by religious groups on campus (who still are involved in community service). In order to create a more centrally organized institution, the Lehman Council initially consisted of a president and treasurer and only allocated College Council funds to different community service projects.

The Lehman Council has existed in its present form, with a full Lehman Council board and coordinators for each project, since the early 90s. College Chaplain Bob Buckwalter is the community service coordinator, and so the Lehman Council office is in the Chaplain’s office, information is available on all of the projects the Lehman Council does.

Comparing Williamstown to a city like New York, Vice-President of the Council Debbie Ebert ’00 noted less evidence of a pressing need for service. “You don’t see the visible need for community service in Williamstown as much,” she said. But her smile when asked why she participates in community service here reveals that it can be just as rewarding.

“When I was small, I was the one who wanted to make everyone happy,” she said. Now her generosity takes the form of traveling to Willowood nursing home to spend time with people like Mr. Schell. “Mr. Schell is a Williams graduate,” Ebert said. “He always has a proud look on his face when we come to visit. And also when we have groups like Good Question come and sing.” The fact that he is “one of them” and also “one of us” makes the us and them distinctions look silly.

Both Ebert and President of the Lehman Council Dan Nehmad ’99 got involved in community service during high school. Nehmad cited several reasons for his community activism. “I think we have a moral obligation to make society work, but I also have an emotional interest in making life enjoyable through service,” he said.

Nehmad works in the tutoring program at the ABC house (A Better Chance), which allows high school students from New York city to move to this area and go to Mt. Greylock High School. This is the setting for exactly the type of personal relationships that he views as the greatest value in service.

“I tutored one girl for three years in biology and chemistry. She’s now at Mt. Holyoke College,” Nehmad said. For him tutoring has made him think about pursuing teaching sometime in the future. It is not hard to see that our connection to the community outside of Williams now will help determine what role we want to play in that community once we leave here. And this may be as much a result of self-discovery as discovery of how the surrounding community works, since the two are obviously not completely distinct from each other.

Nehmad also stressed the fact that formal projects are not the only avenue through which students can contribute. “Community service projects aren’t the only form of community service. Organizations that enhance the Williams community are also a form of community service,” he said. “We connect people at Williams to another community.”

Nehmad also defended the value of community service over philanthropy. In response to the argument that it would be more valuable to simply earn a lot of money and give it away, Nehmad elucidated the inherent value of community involvement.

“The moral obligation is one of community awareness,” he said. “Giving money away doesn’t reflect this. Also, you learn from the actual interaction. You gain a greater understanding of the human condition. There is an emotional connection, separate from the moral obligation, which is what I personally strive for.”

There are, of course, many ways to view connectedness and service, and it is the goal of the Lehman Council not just to help the community and get people involved with the community, but to consider the benefits these actions have for “us” and “them.” Toward this end, the Lehman Council will begin having informal lunches each Wednesday next semester, where one person can share an experience for the group as a whole to discuss with respect to these issues.