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Kate Fritzsche '10: Community service: not just for college applications

Way back in 2005, my SAT writing prompt was "Do people do good things for selfish reasons or for good reasons?" My answer was a definitive "maybe" — there are people who do good work because they feel morally compelled to serve others, and there are people who do it because it makes them feel happy, or it makes them look good on college applications.

While the SAT graders didn't love my response, I stand by it. If you are doing good work for any reason, I encourage you to keep doing it. And if you are not involved in any community service, I urge you to start helping, both because it is rewarding work and because it is necessary work.

There are huge international problems that deserve our attention, but unfortunately most of that work is not best achieved on a college campus. Spending breaks or time after college working overseas is a useful and meaningful experience for many Brown students, but while we are on College Hill, it's most helpful to focus on issues that surround us.

Additionally, many student organizations are designed to raise awareness of important national issues, but these efforts can be frustrating and often do not really change the outcomes of the bigger issues.

I encourage Brown students to be active helpers who are working to affect people's lives now. We all have gifts and talents that merited our acceptance to Brown, and these prepare us perfectly for helping others. Tutoring programs, advocacy work for underprivileged populations in Rhode Island or free athletic or artistic training for students at schools lacking resources are just some of the ways our skills could be used in a socially productive way.

As Brown students, we have a unique opportunity to help the community around us that we might not have had if we had attended college elsewhere. Rhode Island's unemployment rate rose to 12.3 percent in September, and Providence residents face even worse economic conditions than the rest of the state. According to a June 2009 report by Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, 41 percent of children in Providence live in families with a total income under the federal poverty line. Of those children, about half live in "extreme poverty," with their family income less than half of the federal poverty line.

Providence families are in great need of jobs, affordable housing and better educational opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. You may ask what we, as college students, can do on such fundamental structural issues. But small, consistent efforts can make a big difference in people's lives.

Through the hard work of many Brown students, hundreds of Providence public school students are provided with safe and educational after-school programs that they would not otherwise be able to afford. I am involved with one of these: a program at William D'Abate Elementary School in the culturally diverse Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, where students are provided with arts, science, reading, writing, robotics, math, gardening and social studies clubs after school, all thanks to the efforts of current Brown students.

These programs give children a safe place to spend their afternoons, an after-school snack, mentors who care about their welfare and an educational experience unlike their daily classroom activities. They give parents two extra hours of child care, which can allow them to work longer hours or do many other things that benefit their children.

Seeing the smiles on kids' faces when they learn to play a song on the recorder or listening to a girl tell you about her baby sister learning to crawl makes the effort of getting off the hill and planning an arts class more than worth it. Knowing that you helped kids learn and kept them safe and happy is a great feeling, and Olneyville is only a short bus ride away from Kennedy Plaza. It's not hard to commit to one afternoon a week for these children, but it means a lot to the kids to have someone consistently in their lives.

There are plenty of other ways to help besides working with children. Project Health and English as a Second Language programs through the Swearer Center for Public Service, among others, are active in helping adults in Providence. Project Health connects Rhode Island families with health care that aims to attack both physical health problems as well as the social forces that contribute to poor health. Through their volunteer work in hospitals and hours of follow-up with families, the undergraduates involved in the program are connecting people to social welfare programs, helping them access much-needed health care and giving them resources to continue helping themselves.

Getting off College Hill is important to give us a perspective on reality, and doing it in a way that makes positive changes in the lives of others will expand your understanding of the community while you help meet desperate needs of people around us. There is great need in areas near our campus, and there is so much that we are capable of doing to reduce it.

Kate Fritzsche '10 feels morally compelled to serve others, and wants you to help her do it so you can look good. She can be reached at katherine_fritzsche (at) +brown.edu. 




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