Earlier this year, I wrote an article about knowing when to give and when to walk; an internal struggle I deal with on a daily basis. As the year went on, the burden felt heavier. So much has happened since I wrote that post. This is not the first time the world has seen tragedy and it is certainly not the last. However as an emerging young adult, I now feel a deeper sense of responsibility than I did before. My entire life’s work up until now was preparing me for “the moment,” the one when the safeguards of college suddenly dissipate and you realize you’re about to face the world around you, unfortified and afraid.
As these thoughts were racing through my head, I figured I ought to do what I do best, throw myself into my studies by emailing my cherished professor about a course she was teaching in the spring. I was uncertain of almost everything, but the decision to register for her course was one thing I was sure of…and I was correct. The class was called “Philanthropy and Social Difference,” although I feel as though I’m doing it a disservice by calling it a class. Funded by The Philanthropy Lab, this course gave 25 fortunate students at Columbia University the opportunity and the means to thoughtfully select three organizations and present them with a generous grant. Offered by the English department, the class challenged each student with the task of finding the roots of philanthropy within a selection of works from the literary canon, in addition to some modern memoirs. We were blessed with two esteemed Columbia professors — Professor Victoria Rosner and Professor Rachel Adams — whose course objectives transcended those of a typical university class. The aim of the course was to learn about the history of philanthropy and how to practice the act of giving both ethically and effectively, and it did just that.
I quickly learned that giving comes in all shapes and sizes. I spent four months discussing, debating, dissecting, and evaluating various forms of giving with my classmates. Together, we tried to estimate the value of each dollar spent. We wracked our brains trying to come up with the most creative ways to maximize our funds and reach more people in need. We forced ourselves to look within and reflect on our own personal relationships with giving. Why were some of us drawn to certain causes over others? How were we supposed to set five year giving plans for ourselves when so much was and still is unknown? How were we going to tell the organizations that were not chosen, that we were not moving forward with the donations? This experience allowed us to step back and realize just how privileged we were to be in this situation. “To which organization should I grant $50,000?” is not a bad problem to have. However, this was a dilemma we faced only in the context of this course and we eventually had to come to terms with the fact that it will be a very long time, if ever, before any of us is faced with this question again.
Responsible giving, dedication, and research are necessary for all types of giving. Giving doesn’t have to be monetary. Your time is just as valuable as a large sum of money. So at the end of the course we all made a vow to ourselves to give more in the upcoming year. I urge everyone, especially those entering the “real world,” to set a goal, whether that’s donating 5% of your annual income or spending an hour a week volunteering. I left the class with so much hope. Twenty-five students of various backgrounds, cultures, and ideals were able to come together and agree on one thing: philanthropy is essential. We left the class as a community, one that I know I’ll have to lean on for years to come.
I’m informed, but am I in touch? I had to step back and notice that there is a distinct difference. If I don’t have an empathetic awareness of the world around me, then how can I expect to have any chance of making an impact? If you are a current college undergrad and this course is offered on your campus, I strongly urge you to take it. If you’re a college student and this course is not offered, then I highly recommend reaching out to the Philanthropy Lab and your administration to ask why. And if you are all too familiar with the struggles of entering the real world and are still uncertain of your place within it, then I encourage you to consider setting a “giving goal” for yourself. If there is anything that this course and Charles Dickens has taught me, it’s that “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”