Engagement support

When we were seniors in high school looking at liberal arts colleges, we were sure that Williams was among the best; this was corroborated by the fact that U.S. News and World Report had ranked Williams number one for years. Now, as students, we’ve experienced this superiority firsthand: the people, campus and classes are all that we had hoped for. However, the recent ranking results have Williams tied with Amherst, calling into question our preeminence and making us think more about what we’re missing.

Williams students are incredibly driven and dedicated people. Sitting in Paresky during lunch, one glance to the right will show you a varsity team captain or a high school valedictorian. Look left: chances are one of those people has organized a community event in their hometowns or volunteered with children, seniors or in hospitals. The Williams Admissions Web site reveals that 91 percent of Williams students did service work in high school, and we know that they didn’t all just do it to add another extracurricular to their college application. And since the beginning of the school year, multiple students have approached each of us wondering about opportunities for doing community service on campus.

We have these minds around us, brimming with great intentions and ideas. Yet, our Williams community is relatively stagnant when it comes to community engagement. There have been countless cries on these very pages of the Record for us to “break through” the Purple Bubble, and realize that all is not as pristine and perfect as it seems. Why this disconnect between potential and actual initiatives?

Of course, there are a few well-established groups that provide some opportunities for engagement, but they do not begin to cover the range of student interests or the various areas of need in the Berkshires. The students asking us about service opportunities are a testament to the difficulty students have engaging meaningfully with the community. And for every person that has approached us, we know there must be several more who are wondering the same thing and have no one to ask. Additionally, as members of the Lehman Board for Community Engagement, we annually receive students’ applications for service-oriented spring break trips, many of which cannot be funded because we don’t have enough resources for them under our budget.

There simply isn’t enough support in place for people who are interested in community engagement. We have successfully created resource outlets related to sustainability, such as the Center for Environmental Studies and the Zilkha Center for Sustainability. But the Office of Community Engagement, our only outlet for community work, is underfunded and thus underused: it is run by one part-time staff member (Stewart Burns) who works incredibly hard but simply cannot get enough done with his restricted hours and budget. Compare this situation to that of Amherst’s, where there is an endowed, multi-million dollar Center for Civic Engagement that offers information on opportunities in service and social justice and is staffed with eight full-time employees. Their Center facilitates interactions between student groups and community organizations, funds public service internships, offers transportation to local service centers and maintains a “Community Engagement Leader Program,” among other things. And Amherst isn’t alone in making civic engagement a priority: Middlebury, Hamilton and Swarthmore all have similar centers.

So, back to those amazing kids around you and the ideas that they aren’t putting into action – imagine if they could. Imagine if group heads had somewhere to go for support when they were overwhelmed; imagine if they had access to knowledgeable mentors who could give them advice. Imagine if students had somewhere to go to connect with a service project they cared about, even if they only had a few free hours a week. Imagine if there were resources for students to find nonprofits to work for over winter study or summer break. What differences could we be making in our local – or global – communities if we had the resources, the funding and the people who could help us all learn and grow into roles as active community members?

Residents of North Adams need food and help winterizing their homes, presidential nominees need funding and campaign leaders; students in the A Better Chance (ABC) program at Mt. Greylock High School need tutors; local nursing home seniors need attention, not to mention all of the nonprofit groups operating nationally and globally who are constantly in want of support. The need is there – the opportunities are just out of reach of most students.

Williams prides itself on providing incredible people with incredible opportunities. Shouldn’t this carry over to community engagement and service? Who knows where it could lead? We’ve got the will, but not the way – not as things stand now.

To show student interest in establishing a Center for Public Affairs and Community Engagement on campus, the Lehman Board has written a petition to be brought to the next meeting of the Board of Trustees. Look for ways to support this initiative in the coming weeks!

Laura Christianson ’11 is from Minneapolis, Minn. She lives in Fayerweather. Janna Gordon ’11 is from Plainview, N.Y. She lives in Carter.

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