Taking a Step Into the Community

Student Voluntarism

Public Service Program. His program has three branches, Harvard and Neighborhood Development (HAND), the Freshman Urban Program (FUP) and the Harvard Outdoor Program (HOP). And all three are seeing a surge in interest. HAND, which links each Harvard house with a Cambridge neighborhood in the provision of a wide range of social services, is particularly successful. HAND posters deck the walls of all thirteen houses; on each, a roughly sketched hand beckons students to join the program. Gump says he expects 400 students to participate in the program this year.

The grand dame of public service at Harvard is the Phillips Brooks House Association. And it, too, is feeling the revival's fever. "I think each year that I've been here more people have come through PBH wanting to volunteer," says Valerie A. Barton '86, the association's president. The almost century-old association now has more than 800 people working through 23 committees on such diverse issues as tutoring schoolchildren, giving advice on small claims court, improving the treatment of the mentally ill and helping refugees adjust to life in America.

"I feel I can speak for all volunteers in that my work at PBH has been an integral part of my education here at Harvard-Radcliffe and that I feel that it would be incomplete without it. I can't imagine public service not being a part of my education," says Barton.

New Service Groups

Not only the number of volunteers but also the number of organizations devoted to public service is increasing. The increase has not always been greeted with enthusiasm; as HAND moves into its fourth year, for example, there has been some question as to whether its services overlap with those already offered by PBH. Gump argues that while there may be areas where the programs provide similar services, "there is no overlap in an area where we have too much of anything."

Some of the new organizations offer entirely new services. One of the most dynamic of these is Citystep, which brings about 25 dancers and performers to public schools in Cambridge to teach dance expression to 11 and 12-year-old Cantabrigians.

At one recent performance, 15 children thrust their fists into the air, thrust out their legs, and then--under the direction of their student teacher--moved forward, approaching the audience and changing fists into open hands offered to shake. In their four-minute routine, the children and student directors expressed aggression, fear and friendship through dance. It was all part of what Citystep strives to teach--the expression through dance of the experiences of children growing up in a city. Citystep participants and the 100 children with whom they work end each year with a springtime performance in Sanders Theater featuring original student-composed music and choreography.

Other new public service organizations are aimed at international relief efforts. An innovative Harvard-run Overseas Development Network matches the international development efforts of college programs throughout the nation with particular countries. Jazz for Life holds a concert every year to raise money to alleviate world hunger. Cyclists Fighting Hunger sponsor the Ride for Life during the summer when students from Harvard and other colleges bike across the nation to raise money to alleviate world hunger. The Hunger Action Committee sponsors two Oxfam fasts each year.

Why the Increase?

The cynic might say that this surge only looks like an increase given the tremendous decline in public service since the '60s and early '70s. But Epps says he thinks it's different. "It's got to be larger than the '60s," he comments.

There is a qualitative difference too. At a recent forum at the Institute of Politics, John Shattuck, Harvard's vice president of community affairs, said, "I think activism is probably deeper and broader and more potent on campus today than it was 20 years ago when I was a student. It's more practical, in many ways more altruistic, less selfish and more realistic. I think it involves a deep understanding for the community."

"I think what's really remarkable about this is that it is occuring at a time when it's extremely difficult to perform this kind of service for many reasons because there are many pressures going in the other direction. At the very top of the list is the financial pressure for students--the tremendous debt burdens that they bear as they work their way through college," Shattuck said.

The jump in voluntarism, then, is difficult to explain. What some students and administrators dismiss as efforts by students to stuff their resumes, others prefer to greet as a rebirth of on-campus altruism. One intermediate explanation, advanced by Epps, is that students have begun to realize that they can devote a few hours a week to service without feeling obliged to spend most of their lives on public work. "Harvard students have strived for and achieved a balance so that it's not all or nothing. They have found that they can pursue their studies and at the same time be involved in volunteer programs," he says.

Gump and Barton agree that the sense of balance in time commitment is an important factor. "Students do realize that they do have free time and it's a good thing to do," Gump notes. Barton concurs, noting that PBH encourages people who want to spend two hours a week and 20 hours a week. Wayne W. Meisel '82, who helped start up the Public Service Program, agrees, "That's real crucial to understand. People don't have five to 10 hours a week, but they do have one or two or three."

Laura M. Colin '86-87 is on the Education Committee at PBH and while she doesn't spend an extraordinary amount of time tutoring children, she says she draws tremendous benefits from her activity: "Just to take a look at everything you hear on the news--and more. To see the housing project. I'm glad to be able to do something for these kids because there is not really much else you can do for these kids."

Another important source of the increased altruism is the media attention devoted to the famine throughout Africa. "Famine is always there but you can't sustain the coverage. But I think the Ethipia crises gave a push for us," says Troy A. Davis '87, treasurer of Cyclists Fighting Hunger.

OCS's Atherton agrees that a good bit of the motivation guiding applicants to apply for public service jobs in international development is the media attention. But he adds, "I think people do by and large have strong social consciences. I hope we will be able to get more people. It's hard to say if this is short term; we'll have to wait."

The Future

The future of public service at Harvard is hard to peg. Many people point to the development of Citystep as a beacon of hope. Its initiative, innovation and creativity simply arouse praise, and with examples like it people hope there can be steadily increasing public service at Harvard. Sabrina T. Peck '84, one of Citystep's founders, points out also that the organization involves students not normally dedicated to public service.

"The undergraduates involved in Citystep are not traditional public service enthusiasts," Peck says. "Designers, composers, musicians, actors, dancers generally work alone or among themselves and don't necessarily get a chance to work in the community with kids or with Cambridge residents. And the idea behind Citystep is to allow these individuals to pursue their artistic disciplines while at the same time contributing to the community."

In addition to bringing new students into community programs, Meisel says that one of the most important factors in public service's future is the defeat of what he calls "structural apathy." As long as the leadership, structure and challenge to students is strong, he says he believes public service will continue to grow. "I think the idea is to provide challenge and more challenge. HAND was designed to challenge students every day to join by going to the heart of student life, which is the dorm."

PBH's Barton echoes Meisel's concerns with maintaining structures designed to incite and challenge students. "Our work is all done within a context which provides for continuity and quality of programs to the community we serve, and this framework assures that this hands-on educational experience will be present for future students as well," she says.