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Students Question Services' Impact

News Feature

By Ariel R. Frank

While she was an undergraduate, Faith E. Adiele '86-'87 and several other Phillips Brooks House (PBH) volunteers took the subway from Harvard Square to a seedy part of Dorchester every week.

They walked past a gauntlet of Irish bars, past drunk men hunching on stoops in mid-morning, until they arrived at the place where they met with the families of Laotian refugees.

Volunteers would take the refugees out for ice cream and listen as they described the suffering they had endured because of oppression in their homeland.

But, after a time, Adiele began to question the relevance of her involvement and change her view on public service in general, because of two events which occured in the refugees' neighborhood and demonstrated what she saw as systematic oppression.

The first incident occurred when a teenage girl from a refugee family was forced to marry an older American who had gotten to know the girl through his work with a service organization.

Since the man was from a higher socioeconomic class and was willing to spend time with them, the parents believed they were obliged to let him marry their daughter.

Around the same time, Adiele remembers a different incident when a black man was thrown under the subway by frequenters of the area bars and killed.

"It occurred to me that there were so many things going on [racism, sexism and language barriers] that there was no way taking the kids out for ice cream was going to change long-range what the issues were," says Adiele, the former coordinator of Education for Action and now a visiting professor at Framingham State College.

Today, she believes that volunteering to help underprivileged communities can actually perpetuate problems because it does not address the basic societal inequities, since volunteers do not generally help to alter class discrepancies.

"Service relies on the whims of those in power to go in and help people," Adiele says, adding that she thinks undergraduates volunteer for PBH programs because they require minimal commitment and offer immediate gratification.

While saying the programs can be beneficial since they expose undergraduates to poor communities and can help some neighborhoods, she firmly believes that such service projects are meaningless unless undergraduates use the experiences they garner while volunteering to affect institutional change in the future.

Are Their Efforts Worth It?

About 25 percent of Harvard undergraduates volunteer for a PBH program, while others are involved in activist initiatives like Harvard-RadCliffe. Amnesty International. Students volunteer for projects that range from tutoring elementary school students once a week to serving in soup kitchens, to writing letters on behalf of political prisoners.

The problems Adiele came to recognize are not unique. Many undergraduates during their tenure at PBH wonder how much their efforts really matter, yet few seem to come to Adiele's cynical conclusion.

At a Harvard-Radcliffe Amnesty International meeting a few weeks ago, a new member asked if the organization could prove that their efforts were having a positive effect.

"I didn't immediately know how to respond," says Bella K. Sewall '98, the group's co-president.

The national organization publishes a pamphlet which includes statistics--including that claim that since its founding in 1961 Amnesty International has worked on behalf of more than 43,000 prisoner cases of which 40,000 are now closed. But Sewall says those numbers did not satisfy her.

A week after the meeting, Sewall sent an e-mail to members of the undergraduate organization, compiling quotations by former prisoners and government officials, describing how letters from Amnesty volunteers had helped them.

"When the first two hundred letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes," reads a quotation attributed to a released prisoner of conscience from the Dominican Republic. "Then the next two hundred letters came, and the prison director came to see me...The letters kept coming and coming: three thousand of them. The President was informed. The letters still kept arriving, and the President called the prison and told them to let me go."

Sewall continues to write letters and table for Amnesty International because she is convinced the letters do make a difference. Other members agree, although they acknowledge the broader goal of the organization--to improve human rights conditions world-wide--is impossible to quantify.

"The broader issue of human rights, in general, is not something you'll ever finish, so it can be a little daunting," says Marco B. Simons '97, an Amnesty member. "But we have to focus on specific goals and not get sidetracked with the large vision."

Looking for the Little Things

Undergraduates who volunteer must come to terms with the fact that the effects of their programs are impossible to quantify, which makes evaluating the benefits difficult. They continue to volunteer, saying the satisfaction they get from helping, even if it is a small way, motivates them.

Elizabeth A. Tomlinson '99 volunteers through PBH as a big sister to a ten-year-old girl named Jessica.

"Whenever I see Jessica, she has grown," Tomlinson says. "I [know I am] having some sort of impact."

Tomlinson remembers one day last year when Jessica refused to pay attention to her, insisting on standing beyond the subway station's yellow caution line. As the train approached, Jessica continued to ignore Tomlinson until the conductor beeped his horn and frightened the youngster off the line.

"But this year she hasn't had problems like that," Tomlinson adds. "She'll usually listen to me and respect me."

Tomlinson says she has given Jessica, a little girl who has been let down "in pretty major ways" by adults who were important to her, someone to trust.

"One of the things that keeps me motivated more than anything else is that when I think about my own chilhood, there were a lot of supportive adults who helped me through some rough times," she says. "Even if I can't see it immediately, I really am making some sort of difference in her life."

For others the subjects of the service remain much more removed because of the nature of the service organization.

Benjamin F. Zaitchik '98, co-president of Harvard's Amnesty chapter, says that he has been involved with the organization for five years because he feels he is part of an effort that, collectively, makes a real impact.

He estimates that he has written more than 500 letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience.

"It's difficult to know exactly what difference your letter is making," he says. "It's quite obvious that the sum total of Amnesty letters in all these cases is making an impact on world human rights."

According to Zaitchik, after Amnesty wrote letters on behalf of Turkish prisoners who were on a hunger strike last summer, the Turkish government compromised and ended the strike.

"It happens time and time again," he says.

An Academic Perspective

The problems facing undergraduates involved in service have long been recognized by social scientists.

According to such academics, often the only way to evaluate the impact of public service and activism is by asking the clients and the volunteers whether they feel better after participating in the program.

"Social scientists don't have the methodology powerful enough to know whether there has been a more profound effect on the person who has experienced the benevolent help," says Jerome Kagan, Starch Professor of Psychology and a member of the faculty committee on public service.

According to Kagan, people are frequently helped simply because they feel better after volunteers have spent time with them, while the volunteers themselves benefit psychologically as well.

"There is a symbiotic effect because most people have a strong moral sense and wish to feel that they're doing what is right," Kagan says.

He adds that the psychological effects of the work on both parties are as important as any statistical data (like grade reports from a tutoring program) that shows the success of public service.

Theda Skocpol, chair of the faculty committee on public service, agrees that statistics are affected by factors other than public service and therefore do not give an accurate representation of its effect.

"A service provider can usually tell, not on a given day but over a period of time, whether what they're doing connects with the people they're working with," she says. "Usually people get a lot of satisfaction out of the human contact, and that usually sustains them."

Volunteers Push On

In the end, however, students are forced to resolve for themselves the effectiveness of their work. For many it is impossible to isolate how much of what they do is undertaken to assuage their own feelings of guilt and how much out of a passionate desire to help others.

Still, some manage to keep the faith that their actions are making a real difference.

Sewall, the Amnesty co-chair, echoes this sentiment.

"What keeps me motivated is knowing that if I were being tortured, or if I had been imprisoned for something that I had said, I would want someone to write a letter for me," she says. "Just knowing that I have a chance to possibly stop torture or to stop what I see as gross injustice, even if there's a slight chance that something I do helps, makes it worth it."

But, still, even she has her doubts. "There are so many things that people who are activist-minded could do, so the question isn't 'Is this effective sometimes?' It's 'Is it really worth it?"" she wonders. "Is it just going to make me feel better?"CrimsonHector U. Velazquez

"It occurred to me that there were so many things going on [racism, sexism and language barriers] that there was no way taking the kids out for ice cream was going to change long-range what the issues were," says Adiele, the former coordinator of Education for Action and now a visiting professor at Framingham State College.

Today, she believes that volunteering to help underprivileged communities can actually perpetuate problems because it does not address the basic societal inequities, since volunteers do not generally help to alter class discrepancies.

"Service relies on the whims of those in power to go in and help people," Adiele says, adding that she thinks undergraduates volunteer for PBH programs because they require minimal commitment and offer immediate gratification.

While saying the programs can be beneficial since they expose undergraduates to poor communities and can help some neighborhoods, she firmly believes that such service projects are meaningless unless undergraduates use the experiences they garner while volunteering to affect institutional change in the future.

Are Their Efforts Worth It?

About 25 percent of Harvard undergraduates volunteer for a PBH program, while others are involved in activist initiatives like Harvard-RadCliffe. Amnesty International. Students volunteer for projects that range from tutoring elementary school students once a week to serving in soup kitchens, to writing letters on behalf of political prisoners.

The problems Adiele came to recognize are not unique. Many undergraduates during their tenure at PBH wonder how much their efforts really matter, yet few seem to come to Adiele's cynical conclusion.

At a Harvard-Radcliffe Amnesty International meeting a few weeks ago, a new member asked if the organization could prove that their efforts were having a positive effect.

"I didn't immediately know how to respond," says Bella K. Sewall '98, the group's co-president.

The national organization publishes a pamphlet which includes statistics--including that claim that since its founding in 1961 Amnesty International has worked on behalf of more than 43,000 prisoner cases of which 40,000 are now closed. But Sewall says those numbers did not satisfy her.

A week after the meeting, Sewall sent an e-mail to members of the undergraduate organization, compiling quotations by former prisoners and government officials, describing how letters from Amnesty volunteers had helped them.

"When the first two hundred letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes," reads a quotation attributed to a released prisoner of conscience from the Dominican Republic. "Then the next two hundred letters came, and the prison director came to see me...The letters kept coming and coming: three thousand of them. The President was informed. The letters still kept arriving, and the President called the prison and told them to let me go."

Sewall continues to write letters and table for Amnesty International because she is convinced the letters do make a difference. Other members agree, although they acknowledge the broader goal of the organization--to improve human rights conditions world-wide--is impossible to quantify.

"The broader issue of human rights, in general, is not something you'll ever finish, so it can be a little daunting," says Marco B. Simons '97, an Amnesty member. "But we have to focus on specific goals and not get sidetracked with the large vision."

Looking for the Little Things

Undergraduates who volunteer must come to terms with the fact that the effects of their programs are impossible to quantify, which makes evaluating the benefits difficult. They continue to volunteer, saying the satisfaction they get from helping, even if it is a small way, motivates them.

Elizabeth A. Tomlinson '99 volunteers through PBH as a big sister to a ten-year-old girl named Jessica.

"Whenever I see Jessica, she has grown," Tomlinson says. "I [know I am] having some sort of impact."

Tomlinson remembers one day last year when Jessica refused to pay attention to her, insisting on standing beyond the subway station's yellow caution line. As the train approached, Jessica continued to ignore Tomlinson until the conductor beeped his horn and frightened the youngster off the line.

"But this year she hasn't had problems like that," Tomlinson adds. "She'll usually listen to me and respect me."

Tomlinson says she has given Jessica, a little girl who has been let down "in pretty major ways" by adults who were important to her, someone to trust.

"One of the things that keeps me motivated more than anything else is that when I think about my own chilhood, there were a lot of supportive adults who helped me through some rough times," she says. "Even if I can't see it immediately, I really am making some sort of difference in her life."

For others the subjects of the service remain much more removed because of the nature of the service organization.

Benjamin F. Zaitchik '98, co-president of Harvard's Amnesty chapter, says that he has been involved with the organization for five years because he feels he is part of an effort that, collectively, makes a real impact.

He estimates that he has written more than 500 letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience.

"It's difficult to know exactly what difference your letter is making," he says. "It's quite obvious that the sum total of Amnesty letters in all these cases is making an impact on world human rights."

According to Zaitchik, after Amnesty wrote letters on behalf of Turkish prisoners who were on a hunger strike last summer, the Turkish government compromised and ended the strike.

"It happens time and time again," he says.

An Academic Perspective

The problems facing undergraduates involved in service have long been recognized by social scientists.

According to such academics, often the only way to evaluate the impact of public service and activism is by asking the clients and the volunteers whether they feel better after participating in the program.

"Social scientists don't have the methodology powerful enough to know whether there has been a more profound effect on the person who has experienced the benevolent help," says Jerome Kagan, Starch Professor of Psychology and a member of the faculty committee on public service.

According to Kagan, people are frequently helped simply because they feel better after volunteers have spent time with them, while the volunteers themselves benefit psychologically as well.

"There is a symbiotic effect because most people have a strong moral sense and wish to feel that they're doing what is right," Kagan says.

He adds that the psychological effects of the work on both parties are as important as any statistical data (like grade reports from a tutoring program) that shows the success of public service.

Theda Skocpol, chair of the faculty committee on public service, agrees that statistics are affected by factors other than public service and therefore do not give an accurate representation of its effect.

"A service provider can usually tell, not on a given day but over a period of time, whether what they're doing connects with the people they're working with," she says. "Usually people get a lot of satisfaction out of the human contact, and that usually sustains them."

Volunteers Push On

In the end, however, students are forced to resolve for themselves the effectiveness of their work. For many it is impossible to isolate how much of what they do is undertaken to assuage their own feelings of guilt and how much out of a passionate desire to help others.

Still, some manage to keep the faith that their actions are making a real difference.

Sewall, the Amnesty co-chair, echoes this sentiment.

"What keeps me motivated is knowing that if I were being tortured, or if I had been imprisoned for something that I had said, I would want someone to write a letter for me," she says. "Just knowing that I have a chance to possibly stop torture or to stop what I see as gross injustice, even if there's a slight chance that something I do helps, makes it worth it."

But, still, even she has her doubts. "There are so many things that people who are activist-minded could do, so the question isn't 'Is this effective sometimes?' It's 'Is it really worth it?"" she wonders. "Is it just going to make me feel better?"CrimsonHector U. Velazquez

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