Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

Are We Serving Ourselves When Serving Others?

For someone looking at Boston College with a bird's-eye view, things that most noticeably make it distinct are the luscious green lawns, gothic architecture, and the towers of Gasson Hall. But beyond the exterior walls, the students are what truly make this campus unique. BC students are taught to use our Jesuit education to go set the world aflame and serve others with our skills, passions, and love. It seems that the easiest way to make a difference, then, is to engage in acts of service. Volunteering opportunities are not difficult to find on campus. Every year, about 85% of students participate in some form of service BC facilitated service, such as the popular PULSE class, an organization like 4Boston, or a service-learning trip like Appalachia Volunteers.

For students who arrive at BC, college is probably not the first time they participated in volunteer work.

Most of us have volunteered in high school, and for many, it was likely an important means to an end—a college acceptance letter. But should the initial motivation to volunteer really be the hope of achieving something for ourselves? Does that cycle then repeat itself? Are BC students serving the school and its surrounding area in order to boost a resume? The Jesuit values inherent in our school's foundation teach us to serve out of compassion, but we may be volunteering with an underlying motive to fulfill an internal feeling of obligation.

Aligning with the Jesuit ideal of reflection, volunteer-based courses and extracurriculars often encourage students to consider their personal growth. However, this mindset undermines the central purpose of volunteerism. A person should volunteer out of a genuine desire to improve another's circumstances. One's own self-interests should not be at the forefront of service. Hopping on the T and going into Boston may seem selfless, but it can gradually become a form of service performed out of convenience.

In addition to the lack of intentionality in service, the volunteering offered to BC students typically involves assuming an authoritative role. Whether it is tutoring, working at nursing homes, or running soup kitchens, the service circumstances often allow for BC students to see themselves in a superior position. It becomes serving for others instead of serving with others, and it is this belief of serving with others and seeing one another as equals that tightly aligns with our Jesuit values.

BC touts its Jesuit ideals and says that its students, as “men and women for others,” readily volunteer their time in the service of others. The volunteering that students are doing, however, may rarely be seen as activism. It treats the symptoms of the problem but never the solution itself. This discrepancy between serving and understanding our motives for serving may be a result of how many of us were raised. On average, BC students were likely taught that volunteering is an important thing to do. Many churches require a certain number of service hours before receiving a sacrament, as do clubs like Key Club and National Honor Society. But fulfilling a time requirement in order to reach an individual goal makes the act perfunctory. Simply put, participating in something obligatory is not volunteering.

Tricking ourselves into believing that because we are privileged our presence can always better the lives of those in need is ignorant. In fact, we sometimes inadvertently hurt others by acting according to our own interests. In soup kitchens, an influx of people provide helping hands during the winter, especially during the holiday season. But it is the time between holidays and the summer months when many of us are vacationing that soup kitchens truly need help. It’s important to remember that when you enter an environment you aren't naturally accustomed to, sensitivity should be practiced so as to avoid disruption.

A truly selfless act cannot, by definition, be done for the sole sake of self-improvement. For that reason, when a service opportunity revolves around improvement of your own life, it goes against the nature of volunteering. Seeking to alleviate current problems is significantly helpful, but it is more so effective to research the systemic pillars that lead to such unfortunate predicaments. Tutoring, for example, can be vastly beneficial for students from underperforming high schools. But this temporary aid is nothing compared to what employment of better resources and programs would be.

“In the Service of Life” by Rachel Naomi Remen, Remen encourages people to think about the difference between helping, fixing, and serving. Remen writes, “When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy.” Helping and fixing establishes an inherent inequality between two persons or two populations, and this is the type of volunteer work that BC all too often fosters. In order to best serve others, both aspects of service—volunteering and activism—have to be assigned the same significance.

Despite being born New Jersey, I’m kind of a big deal. Thankful for the meaningful things in my life, like Sufjan Steven lyrics and pasta.