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Janet Riggs Headshot

Beyond Volunteering

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National Volunteer Week provides a time for honoring volunteers and a time to reflect upon the impact of public service in this country. As president of a residential college in a small American town, I often think about the impact of our students' service on our local community, as well as the impact that engaging in service has on our students, themselves -- a generation of millennials preparing to enter the world as professionals and citizens.

At my institution, Gettysburg College, our 2,700 students are responsible for nearly 70,000 hours of service in any given academic year. Over 25 percent volunteer at least 20 hours per week. That depth of activity implies that our students don't volunteer just as a way of padding their already impressive resumés -- and clearly they don't see their volunteerism as a "once-and-done" activity.

At Gettysburg College, informed citizenship is embedded in our mission and in our curriculum. Through our Center for Public Service, we help students develop a commitment to creating lasting community partnerships and positive social change, and provide them with a number of opportunities to exercise informed citizenship beyond the classroom. We offer summer research grants and internships that support their social justice research. We sponsor weekly dialogue groups and host a blog where they can share personal stories and work together to unpack thorny issues of inequality. We send them on week-long immersion trips that allow them to learn from community leaders about social justice in communities across the nation and around the world. Our faculty guide them in conducting research aimed at addressing local issues such as poverty, women's health, immigration, and food justice.

As a result, our students learn to think critically and act compassionately. They work to generate solutions to challenging social problems, while offering a helping hand to those in need. These experiences creating lasting change in the way our students think about politics and policy, how they approach and treat others, how they advocate for those in need, and how they see their role as citizens in their local and global community.

Take one of our current seniors, Yaou Liu. An international student from China, Yaou participated in our annual Gettysburg Is Volunteering (GIV) Day during first-year orientation. A summer internship in our local community opened her eyes to systemic causes for issues such as poverty, hunger, and immigration. When her education class studied the impact of No Child Left Behind on local schools, Yaou used the voices of students and administrators at the schools in which she volunteered to inform her research. At first, Yaou recalls, "I had still just been volunteering to volunteer." Now, she says, these experiences have "opened my eyes to the needs in Adams County and made me a more informed citizen." After graduating this spring, Yaou plans to spend the year serving in MATCH Corps--where she'll volunteer as a tutor and learn about the education gap at low-income Boston schools.

Or there's Chris Dellana, whose service-learning trip to Nicaragua gave him the opportunity not only to practice his Spanish skills and immerse himself in a new culture, but also to work in a Nicaraguan hospital and assist with a research project on rural water quality. Following his graduation this spring as a Globalization Studies and Spanish Linguistics major, he will attend law school for a dual degree in public health and law. Chris says his experiences have made him want to be an advocate for change in the healthcare industry so that disadvantaged people can "take advantage of their most basic right: the right to good health."

There are many stories like Yaou's and Chris's at Gettysburg, and we take great pride in them--even in a time when many measure the value of a college education according to the income of recent graduates. There is no question that college should prepare graduates for fulfilling professional lives. But stories like Yaou's and Chris's demonstrate the impact that college can have on preparing an informed and socially responsible citizenry--citizens who will take on volunteer roles in their communities, who will work to effect positive change, who will ultimately make the world a better place. That impact might be hard to measure, but it should not be lost in today's discussion about the value of higher education.

As we honor our community volunteers this week, let us also consider the importance of preparing volunteers of the future who will think critically, act compassionately, and generate sustainable solutions to society's problems.