Reshaping our outlook on service learning

Noah Phillips

Serving meals at a food pantry, visiting a nursing home to talk with elderly residents, sprucing up a local park, joining Habitat for Humanity to build homes for displaced families–these are a few of the hundreds of volunteer service learning projects that Horace Mann students undertake each year. Right now, we all engage in annual service learning activities as a requirement for graduation and, based on anecdotal feedback, most students feel good about contributing time and effort to help others. But if service learning were not a graduation requirement–would all or even a majority of students commit similarly to service?
Many students see service as just a requirement to be fulfilled like any other. Begrudgingly, and with the help of resources from the Community Center for Values and Action (CCVA), students complete the requirement. The CCVA provides a list of projects, proposal forms, and reflection sessions to help students participate in a service project that they may be more passionate about. Even with the abundance of possibilities, there remains a group of students who view Horace Mann’s recently revamped service learning requirement as trivial and without significant long-term value.
As students at this school, each of us has a pressing obligation to give back to the less fortunate communities around us, and the opportunities for community outreach offered at HM allow us to fulfill this obligation.
Despite the opportunities made readily available for the student body, the faculty struggle to alter any individual student’s preconceived notion that service-learning, which takes time out of their busy day, is nothing to be excited about. Throughout my year and a half at this school, I have met many of these narrow-minded people, not open to service-learning no matter how persuasive I, the CCVA, and the administration may be.
I have been deeply impacted by community service work, despite never expecting such a profound outcome. At the time of my Bar Mitzvah in 2015, I knew that I would have a “Bar Mitzvah Project” or some form of community-service to allude to during my speech. I envisioned this to be a one-time, easy job serving food on Thanksgiving night to the homeless in my neighborhood. I went to the school where the project was based, and ladled soup into the bowls of those I was serving. What truly struck me was the genuine and repeated thanks that those I served had, towards me, for somewhat absent-mindedly serving them soup. Everyone at that Thanksgiving dinner seemed deeply appreciative to have a hot meal served to them that night. From their optimism and remarkable attitudes, the people that I helped that night changed my view of service dramatically, and I immediately recognized that I could make a real impact on the world if I invested my time and effort. I have continued to volunteer semi-regularly at my synagogue’s homeless shelter and always experience the same gratitude and personal connection from those I encounter. From the lasting effect that acts of community-work had on me, and from the impacts I see other service-learning activities has on my peers, it’s evident the great value of service-learning and work of the CCVA.
In candor, those who approach service-learning with the sole purpose of filling a graduation requirement are missing out on an opportunity to better the society around them and better themselves through community service.