College Community Service Should Be a Requirement

By the time you graduate from UCSD, how long will you have been in school?

If you’re an undergraduate and you’ve slavishly adhered to your college’s “”Finish in Four”” playbook, then the answer is 17 years. The rest of us — graduate students, and those in favor of a more relaxed approach to higher education — will have served longer terms.

Now imagine that glorious day when your studies are completed: You will emerge into the community, prepared for anything. Or will you?

The truth is, many college graduates discover that they are ill-equipped to cope with the transition from academia to the “”real-world.”” They lack applicable job skills, confidence in themselves and a sense of connection to their community.

The best solution is to ensure that college students get real world experience and learn about the surrounding community: One year of community service should be required for all college students.

A lack of community involvement has long been a problem in the United States, a problem that is easily eliminated.

There are many ills that need immediate attention and for which there are pathetically few resources.

The issue of homelessness is an obvious example. San Diego has a staggering homeless population and a dearth of resources. There are not enough shelters to house these people, not enough cooks to feed them and not enough tutors to help them gain skills necessary to get jobs and enter the work force. However few they may be, volunteers work every day to aid this population; increasing the volunteer work force would naturally increase the amount of help available and the quality of life for all residents.

Another example is the availability of health care for low-income individuals and families. Free and reduced-fee clinics are in high demand, but waits are long and service cursory at best, because the clinics are understaffed. A medical degree isn’t necessary to help in a clinic — Planned Parenthood needs receptionists and clerks as well as doctors and nurses. Flooding the country with young, intelligent volunteers will address the shortage of workers in such community service organizations and improve life for all of us.

Community service benefits those who receive it as much as those who give it. A major benefit is job experience.

Volunteering is much like employment of any other sort: It entails regular hours, answering to a supervisor, completing necessary tasks and cooperating with others. Volunteering at a women’s shelter provides more useful work experience than flipping greasy burgers and soaking potato strips in animal fat.

Revelle junior Nick Parziale is co-director of UCSD’s Eyes on the Elderly program, in which students make regular trips to the Torrey Pines Convalescent Home to interact with seniors who may have little contact with their family.

Parziale explained that his experiences with Eyes on the Elderly have taught him “”interpersonal and leadership skills”” and have given him a satisfaction in his accomplishments that translates into confidence. Clearly, community service opportunities offer students valuable tools for success in the work world.

Perhaps less tangible yet infinitely more significant than gaining a foothold in the job market is the exposure to other cultures that volunteering provides.

Racial diversity on college campuses has been the source of much controversy in recent years; however, few question the value of being exposed to a diverse environment. This can be achieved through means other than the thorny issue of affirmative action.

A middle-class volunteer who works in an inner city school will be immersed in an environment different from the one she was raised in, and will develop a more balanced perspective on important issues such as discrimination and education.

Parziale described a friendship he had with a woman through Eyes on the Elderly.

“”She was one of the nicest ladies I’ve ever met,”” he recalled. “”Her life was different from my own in every aspect, and I learned so much from her.”” His relationship taught him about a different life experience.

University of North Carolina graduate Ajay Ojha volunteered with Americorps, a national public service organization that boasts impressive enrollment.

She said of her service, “”Being a part of such a diverse team opened my eyes to the fact that no two people are alike, and as obvious as that sounds, many people never realize how wonderful this really is … eventually, a little bit of everyone you meet begins to rub off on you.””

Experience with different social and ethnic groups therefore can improve volunteers’ lives and better prepare them for the diversity they will encounter later in life.

Many balk at the idea of requiring community service. They call this “”involuntary volunteerism”” and cite the efforts of well-intentioned officials who sign off on volunteer hours not completed in order to allow students to meet their requirements. However, such violations of policy, while serious, should not deter such a beneficial plan from going forward.

Also, many reason that if students do not want to volunteer, they will “”drag their feet,”” and do a shoddy job in order to simply get the service over and return to class as normal. If student unwillingness were a just deterrent, it follows that we’d have no general education requirements at universities.

Literature majors hate being forced into math classes, and the engineering folks complain about the obligatory humanities courses. In these cases, however, it has been decided that the benefit of these requirements outweigh students’ individual displeasure. It should be the same with community service.

Many also point out that some students must work a paying job in order to finance college and pay for living expenses. In cases of dramatic financial need, some volunteer service could be reduced. In addition, college fees would be subsidized for volunteerism, much like in the Americorps program, which offers almost $5,000 in grants or loan forgiveness in exchange for a year of service.

Volunteerism is a feasible way to address the social problems facing us in America. College students are graced with intelligence and understanding. They can benefit immensely from their experiences in community service and can strengthen society at large.

It is not enough to go out into the world armed only with a diploma and a head full of quotations and equations; to succeed, students must feel confident and capable and feel satisfied that they are contributing to improving the community.