Why is community service such a low priority at Williams?
I know this statement enrages the students and faculty members who spend many hours a week hanging out with a “Little Sister,” coaching a basketball team at the Youth Center or organizing the year’s plans for Best Buddies. To those few offended, I apologize. Yet the statement still stands and I ask the rest of the campus, who are so actively involved in athletics, student organizations and musical groups, what the hell happened to community service?
But the real question is, where is the community? We are part of one of the neediest counties in Massachusetts, with the highest teen pregnancy rate and the highest rate of unemployment; it’s not like we’re living in the Brady Bunch neighborhood. Still, my real concern lies in our community at Williams.
Supposedly, 400 students in any given semester participate in community service, but my guess is that the numbers are closer to 300, with the last 100 people registered for more than one activity and counted twice. But let’s just take the highest estimate. That still means that only a mere 20 percent of Williams students contribute. And among this community, little, if any, interaction takes place. At most of your high schools, there probably was a community service group that everyone joined and which met about once a month to discuss upcoming projects. Here there is a small umbrella organization called the Lehman Community Service Council. The Lehman Council has about 26 different community service groups underneath it, each with its own student group head, and each almost completely isolated from the other 25. For obvious reasons, the 400 students could not congregate and discuss the next car wash, so it makes sense for each group to run independently.
Let’s say you want to tutor at Mount Greylock High School. I could give you the name of the student who runs that group, you would contact him or her. Then you would meet the group of about five volunteers at Baxter, head over there, tutor math for an hour or two and resume daily activities at Williams.
Some say, what is wrong with that? You’re doing community service by helping out at a local high school, so what’s the problem?
An important part of community service is interaction among volunteers. People do community service to feel that they are making a difference and to become more aware of where they live, but also to meet other Williams students who have similar interests. You are more likely to drag yourself out of bed at nine on a Saturday morning to build a Habitat for Humanity house if five of your friends are also running into a freezing shower to jolt themselves awake.
At the beginning of every year there are a good number of freshmen who decide to get involved in some sort of community service activity in order to meet other freshmen. Many of them complain that community service here at Williams isn’t the same as in high school because there is no sense of a Williams community. Unfortunately, this is not an easy problem to solve. You can’t build that kind of community overnight. You also can’t raise the number of Ephs involved by telling them they are joining a close-knit community of 400 people.
Another complaint is from people who do not have the time to make a regular commitment and just want to get involved sporadically. The Lehman Board sets up community service weeks at least once a semester and tries to create Saturday service projects for people with a few hours to kill. Also, we have set up a lengthy listserve to inform people of upcoming activities. Beyond that we are not sure exactly what to do to get more people involved or how to cater to the once-in-a-blue-moon community service volunteers. This, too, is a problem that can’t easily be solved.
The frustrating part is that at other colleges these problems don’t exist. For some reason other schools’ community service groups have much higher numbers, generate a feeling of a student community and are successful at introducing students to one another. So where does Williams fall short?