PBHA Experiences Volunteer Shortage

The Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) is experiencing what it says is its most severe shortage of first-year student volunteers in recent memory.

The number of first-years volunteering at PBHA—the largest community service organization at Harvard—is about half of what it usually is at this point in the year, endangering the viability of several of its programs, said PBHA President Laura E. Clancy ’02-’03.

“If we don’t have enough volunteers, our programs can’t run,” said Lindsay N. Hyde ’04, PBHA community outreach coordinator.

“First-years always play a huge role in PBHA,” Hyde said.

With 82 programs serving close to 10,000 people in the Cambridge-Boston area, about 1,700 volunteers are needed to keep PBHA running.

Officers said they may have to decrease the number of people they serve by 400 to 500 because of the shortage of about 250 first-year volunteers.

One of the hardest-hit programs may be the Franklin Afterschool Enrichment program, in which first-years comprise two-thirds of the group’s 120 tutors.

Program director Kristin M. Garcia ’05 said that without more volunteers, the program may be forced to take on fewer students and to assign more than one student to each tutor—moves she said would be detrimental to the program.

The shortage of first-year volunteers was also apparent at this year’s First-Year Day of Service. While 300 first-years showed up last year, 25 participated this year, Hyde said.

PBHA officers said that in light of the fact that the group did not decrease or substantially change its efforts to recruit volunteers this year, they are puzzled over the dramatic drop.

Clancy suggested that perhaps some students may be feeling the economic pressures of the current recession and seeking jobs rather than signing up for volunteer activities.

Emily S. Wu ’03, PBHA programming chair, said she thinks the decline in volunteerism could be a result of an Aug. 1 letter sent out to first-years by Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

The letter encouraged students not to overload themselves by doing “two major extracurricular activities simultaneously.”

Some first-years said they are not disinterested in public service but are simply holding off on making any commitments for the time being.

“I am waiting to see what my schedule will be like,” said Jack M. Marsh ’06, who was a volunteer firefighter in high school. “I want to feel things out to get a picture of my time frame.”

The decline in volunteerism faced by PBHA was the last thing expected by some social commentators, who speculated soon after last year’s terrorist attacks that overall civic participation would increase in the U.S.

But Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Saguaro Seminar, who is in the process of measuring the impact of Sept. 11 on civic engagement, said disasters have historically caused temporary increases in civil engagement, but “how long these surges last depends on the severity of what happened.”

Studies indicate that while Americans became more trusting of the government after Sept. 11, that did not necessarily translate into more civic-minded action, he said.