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Ethan Tobias '12: Who is this for?

The semesters are always extremely busy, with tons of classes, exams and papers.  On top of all the coursework, students have many extracurricular responsibilities. Most students can barely cram in a social life, let alone an occasional full night's sleep. Overwhelmed by the breadth of work and activities, it is easy to lose touch with the wider Providence community.

Over the last week of winter break, 12 Brown students tried to bridge this divide by volunteering at Highlander Charter School with a program run by the Brown/RISD Hillel.
As a participant, I had the chance to connect with local elementary school children, helping with homework and running activities. For me, this was a very meaningful experience.

Unfortunately, I cannot really say the same for the third graders I spent time with. This was  illustrated when one student said, "I've never heard of Brown, and I never want to go there!" This exclamation fleshed out the irony of the whole program. While the Brown students were having this very positive experience, serving a part of the Providence community with which they would not usually interact, what kind of experience were the children having?

They certainly recognized our presence, interacting with us as if we were their teachers. At several points, students who had met us at previous activities would run up to us to say a quick hello. However, the week, already shortened by Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, only provided a small window into their world. By the time I had a good grasp of the personalities of the children I was assigned to, the week was over and we were ready to begin another work-filled semester.

Had this one week of service really had an impact on their lives? Their days would have been very similar whether we were or were not there, since the usual after-school teachers were still in charge. Could it even be detrimental that the program had ended as soon as the children finally got a chance to really connect with us? Had we actually let them down in a way?

These questions do not just apply to the twelve students in Hillel's program. With so many students on campus volunteering their time in a variety of types of service, it seems altogether possible that our energies might be wasted, or an inefficient use of human resources.

One Brown student on the program remarked how much greater our impact could have been if we had spent our time campaigning in Massachusetts for Martha Coakley. With the health care bill seemingly dependent on the Democrats holding onto that Senate seat, we might have made more of a difference by helping pass a bill with the potential for providing insurance coverage for these children's parents. That would mean more money at home for things like books and food. Furthermore, the impact from this election will be felt nationwide, helping tens of thousands of children rather than the 200 at Highlander Charter School.

Ultimately, this game of theoretical happenings and questions of efficacy fails to consider the potential hidden value in service. In the case of this program, a whole group of students from around the world had a taste of what it means to be an educator and serve in the community. Hopefully, this first bite will lead to a sustained relationship between Highlander Charter School and Hillel, and the continuation of programs that engage in service projects with the community.

A sustained initiative means that this first week of service, affecting only a few children, might morph into something that impacts the lives of hundreds of children over the course of months and years. Furthermore, if one of these community service programs leads Brown students to want to do more community service, or even something like Teach for America, the benefits are exponentially greater.

For this program, it was much more important that community service influenced those serving rather than those being served. When motivated to continue serving for the months and years to come, Brown students like us will have the opportunity to be role models for hundreds of children.

Sometime between shopping a dozen classes and cramming for papers and midterms, consider serving in the Providence community. It might not seem to have the huge impact that volunteering for a political campaign does, and it might be a little disconcerting at times. Remember, however, that the effects of service are not limited and will continue to grow with time into something that might have a noticeable impact.

Ethan Tobias '12 is a biology concentrator from New York. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias [at] brown.edu.




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