Op-eds

Conrad ’18: For the Brown bucket list — Volunteering

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Brown is a place where you are empowered to do whatever you want. It’s fantastic. By all means, devote these four years to as wide an assortment of courses and activities as you see fit. But community involvement should always be a part of that. This is not a given for many of us, and I understand that. We’re all busy. I won’t write a standard three-example list because I know that it couldn’t even begin to reflect all that we do at Brown. But we shouldn’t be here improving ourselves only for our own benefit. We should be improving ourselves so that we’re better equipped to improve the world around us.

The Swearer Center for Public Service provides such opportunities for student engagement with the surrounding community, including teaching English as a second language and sexual health education, helping run after-school clubs for elementary schoolers and facilitating art workshops for prison inmates.

As a first-year, I volunteered with the Swearer Center’s Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring program. Now, as a sophomore, I teach English to adults in the Providence area through the Olneyville ESOL program. My students are immigrants and refugees who do not speak English.

On the first day of classes this semester, one of my students could do no more than say, “Hi,” and provide her name when I prompted her. In the following few weeks, I slowly inferred that she was the primary caregiver for her two children, whom she often brought with her to our meetings. She always seemed tired at the start of class, and I worried at first that she would not be able to continue attending.

I have worked with her for just a little over a month, and yet she has already improved significantly. She came to class the week of Halloween with her son and introduced me to him in English. The beaming smile on her face as she repeated, “This is my son,” was wholly gratifying for me as a teacher and as a person.

Volunteering with the Swearer Center reminds me of the immense privileges I am afforded at Brown — privileges we all share just by attending. We are privileged with a great education, incredible job prospects and inclusion in a strong community of inspiring people.

The good news is, these four years at Brown are the perfect time to leverage this privilege. We all take on a lot, but we also support each other through it. Brown supports us, too. But for this support to reach its strongest potential, we must adopt a mentality focused on volunteerism, especially if money is not a factor.

As our dependents and financial responsibilities (parents, spouses, children and property) increase in number, more and more of our decisions will have to factor in money. It will not only become increasingly difficult to do volunteer work, but even jobs ostensibly benefiting humanity will become more about the money.

Financial pressures will naturally move us away from the positions that have the most direct impact. For instance, a lower-paying position that involves more direct interaction with those you’re trying to help, will no longer be prudent when compared to the higher-paying, but more disconnected, position as an administrator. At some point, the job may not even be about bettering the world at all.

And yet, making bank and cruising around in a new Bugatti, as lovely as that might be, should not and will not be fulfilling by itself. I doubt any students here want to realize in 20 years that their lives amounted to little more than material goods and a number in a bank account. It’s surprising just how easy it is for any of us to walk that path.

If I never volunteered through the Swearer Center, it would not be too difficult for me to view my life as a personal slice of hell. The combined stress of assessments, student group obligations, thinking about my career and social ups and downs can make for a miserable ride. Volunteering at the Swearer Center reminds me why my life is anything but hellish. It reminds me of the privileges I have, and I’m grateful for it.

Having that experience and perspective, I do not plan on ever making a career decision that would earn me money at the cost of my opportunity to benefit the world around me. Were I to make such a decision, I would be lacking the same perspective as the version of me who would view my life at Brown as hellish. I would be lacking the perspective that volunteering at the Swearer Center has lent me.

I implore you to volunteer during your time at Brown so that you might also help others — and yourself.

Nate Conrad ’18 can be reached at nate_conrad@brown.edu.