Community Better Served by Those Willing to Do So

    NATIONAL NEWS — For each week you dedicate to community service, the government will pay for one unit of your college education. Or how about your employer offers you a paid day off — any day you’d like — provided that you spend that day doing some form of community service.

    Better yet, the government is offering tax deductions that directly correlate to the number of hours of community service provided during the year. Community service anyone? Oh, there’s one more caveat: If your answer is no, we’ll just take the choice away from you altogether by forcing you to serve your community whether you like it or not. What do you say to that?

    Naturally, most of us would choose to be in the first situation where we are receiving a self-selected benefit from doing what is asked of us versus being forced into a situation we otherwise wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. We are all free thinkers and we can all discern what is and is not best for ourselves, so why is it that our leaders seem convinced that they have to force us into community service to get the desired response?

    Take, for example, one of the promises made by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) during his campaign for the presidency. Dodd promised America that as our president, he would increase the amount of community service in our nation. One way he proposed to create the “first generation in history in which every American serves their country” was by making community service mandatory for all high school students.

    You don’t need to be an expert to see this plan’s great potential for failure. Mandatory service, reeking of good intentions as it is, would not be enough to incite the “lifelong sense of civic responsibility” Dodd was looking for. We can see this already in the high schools which have taken on the required service initiative.

    A December 2003 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics looked at the relationship between students who volunteered in high school and those who volunteered after high school. According to the study, students who were required to volunteer in high school were no more likely to volunteer again eight years after high school than students who did not volunteer at all (28 percent of students who faced mandatory service in high school volunteered eight years later versus 26 percent who did not volunteer). So, not only are we wasting students’ time, but we are also wasting the efforts of administrators who have to work to enforce these policies.

    It shouldn’t take even this much evidence to understand that mandatory service in high school is a bad idea. When you inform these already overtaxed young people that not only do they have to take (and pass) math, science and English during their high school careers, they also have to find the time to volunteer in their communities, most will hunt out the least demanding form of service and resent everyone who forced them into this situation for a long time.

    Sure there will be the few who find a calling during their forced service, but they will be vastly outnumbered by those who want nothing more than to never hear the word volunteer again. This means that those schools in the San Diego Unified School District that require 75 hours of community service are not fostering the next generation of do-gooders, but rather are instilling in our young people a sense of bitterness toward community service and volunteering.

    Rather than forcing service out of people, we should find ways of creating a desire to serve within them. The first step would be to increase the availability of opportunities for community service. We should make it so that our community is bursting with chances to volunteer, so that it is impossible to be uninformed of exactly what community service possibilities are out there. We are already taking steps in this direction.

    For instance, at UCSD we have roughly 15 campus-based community service opportunities ranging from alternative spring/summer breaks which give students the opportunity to dedicate their time off to helping other communities, to mentoring and tutoring programs, to the A.S. Volunteer Connection which provides students with a link to local community service opportunities.

    On top of these, there is also a variety of opportunities offered through several of our six colleges and even a few academic programs such as the public service minor, which helps students develop their civic skills while learning about the history and practices of public service. These opportunities are a great starting point, but people need even more encouragement, which is why we need to provide proper incentives to encourage voluntary service.

    Dodd recognized that a very powerful incentive in today’s society is money, so he proposed giving tax breaks to any employer who gave employees paid time off to do community service. The military recognizes another incentive: the desire to receive a college education. Depending on the time frame and service you provide, the military may pay up to 100 percent of your college tuition. Why not apply that same incentive to community service opportunities? By promising those who serve our community a free education, we would be benefiting in two ways: first through the work done while the person is serving; and second by educating a person who might otherwise have remained uneducated. A win-win situation.

    There is no reason for community service to be a chore we force students to do. The way we go about extorting service from people today completely takes the voluntariness out of volunteering and threatens to leave us with a generation of young adults who think community service is just another class you are forced to complete in high school. With the right opportunities and well-aimed incentives, we could have people lining up at the door to serve their communities.

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