08/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Reality TV Hurting the Integrity of Community Service?


If you watch reality television or read the entertainment news, you've noticed that almost every show tends to stir up controversy. The new reality show on Bravo, "NYC Prep," is no exception; however, this storm has extended beyond Hollywood and has now clouded the realm of community service.

The Connection between Reality TV and Community Service

"NYC Prep" focuses on six teens, ranging from 15-18 years old. Blogging on Woman Around Town, Allie and Josh (both previously active in the NYC Prep scene and now college students) describe the connection between "NYC Prep" and community service. They write,

"Reflecting candidly on her ruthless quest to get into Harvard, Camille [one of the six teens] this week on NYC Prep explains that she needs more community service work on her record so as to not 'under-exceed' expectations.... Camille's mother has driven her into an absurd quest to pack on charity work to her college application, demonstrating the notion instilled early in Upper East Siders' lives that community service means picking out dresses to be featured at charity fashion shows. The straight line from teenage fundraisers to adult socialite galas is very real among wealthy Manhattanites; one might hope that energetic teens would engage in real community work before retreating to boardrooms and ball gowns. We must admit, though, that Camille's sycophancy in reaching the teenage board of Operation Smile is highly entertaining."

The teens in "NYC Prep" strive to highlight their maturity positively during every episode. With that in mind, shouldn't they realize that the show will be edited (i.e., think before you talk)? I watch purely for the entertainment value it offers, but I've become upset with how the series devalues community service; it's used merely as a pawn to ensure entry into an elite school. Of all the teens, I believe that Camille, a junior in high school at the time the show was taped, is the only character who discusses honestly her ulterior motives for volunteering: she wants to perfect her resume to guarantee her acceptance at Harvard.

So Why is This Upsetting?

The emphasis placed on engaging in community service during high school is intended (I would hope) to instill an attitude of social responsibility among American students; it was never intended as a means to pad student resumes.

Clearly, if people care so little about volunteerism and advocacy, should community service indeed be required by most schools as a graduation requirement? What proportion of those who go to college with "community service" on their resumes continue to volunteer after they begin their higher education? If the percentage is low, then I believe the time is right to rethink our community service system.

As part of the non-profit community, I realize that one of the biggest struggles we face is getting young adults to care about causes; i.e., community service. Why is this so difficult? Are young adults desensitized to caring about advocacy organizations because they believe they have already paid their dues in high school?

The community service industry and the work of non-profit organizations have become very commercialized, and this unhappy development is tarnishing the integrity of the work--and the change--we are trying to create. As a writer, graduate student at Harvard, and a lifelong advocate, I am standing up for what I value. While reality television may reflect the current reality, that doesn't mean we are forced to accept it.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against the academic institutions these students attend or prep schools in general. Additionally, the problem discussed is not caused by Camille or "NYC Prep"; however, the example helps to illustrate the point for discussion.

What are your thoughts regarding community service as a requirement in high school? Do you think there is a downside to the requirement?
For inspiring daily tips and great discussion, please visit!

To receive Perseverance by August 18th, pre-order your copy today!