Community Service

Image: President's Office

COMMUNITY SERVICE: AN ETHICAL IMPERATIVE
Kiwanis Club
March 9, 2006

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. As I began to prepare my remarks I went online to the Kiwanis website. Prominently displayed on the site are the six permanent Objects of Kiwanis International. I noticed that they were approved in 1924 and remain unchanged today. How impressive that they are as contemporary today as they were over 80 years ago. Being contemporary is one thing that we at Saint Mary's take great pride in as well.

As I read the six Objects, a striking similarity became apparent between what we do at Saint Mary's and your goals as Kiwanians. Your first object states that you give primacy to the human and spiritual rather than to the material values of life - The founder of the Holy Cross orders, Father Basil Moreau, is often quoted as saying "the mind will not be sacrificed at the expense of the heart." As I continued to read the Objects I could draw parallels with all of them, but today I thought I would focus on the 4th Object - To develop, by precept and example, a more intelligent, aggressive, and serviceable citizenship. And I will focus on the development of a "serviceable citizenship".

I will begin by addressing Community Service as an ethical imperative for the sector in which I work, higher education. Our understanding of the civic value of a liberal arts education has changed over time. For most of its history, American higher education had as one of its explicit goals the formation of students as responsible citizens and moral human beings. Higher education was seen as a public and social good as well as a personal benefit to the individual student. It was assumed, however, that educating students broadly in the intellectual traditions would naturally result in good citizens. Consequently, classroom time was seldom devoted specifically to civic engagement. Sometime during the last half of the twentieth century, educators--especially those in higher education--became skeptical of their ability to know how to form good human beings and good citizens. Higher education, at least many segments of it, reformulated its goals as being purely intellectual and focused solely upon academic disciplines. The social and moral implications of what was taught, as well as students' personal development were seen as beyond a faculty member's training and expertise, and therefore, not the task of the college or university.

Recent trends, however, show a strong emergence of community-based learning in most colleges and universities and a reemergence of a broader mission for higher education. The creation of citizens, which had been seen as the exclusive work of families and churches, is a responsibility that institutions of higher learning are again embracing. The number of service-learning programs and the placement of a greater emphasis on experiential education have risen significantly. A recent article, At a Glance: what we know about the effects of Service-Learning on College Students, Faculty, Institutions and Communities, conta ins an extensive list of the positive benefits of service-learning. I will share just a few:

1. Service-learning has a positive effect on student personal development in areas such as the sense of personal efficacy, personal identity, spiritual growth, and moral development.

2. Service-learning has a positive effect on interpersonal development and the ability to work well with others, leadership, and communication skills.

3. Service learning has a positive effect on reducing stereotypes and facilitating cultural and racial understanding.

4. Volunteer service in college is associated with involvement in community service after graduation.

5. Both students and faculty report that service learning improves students ability to apply what they have learned in the "real world".

 

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC & U) stated, and I quote, "if civic engagement is to become a core theme in most students' education, then it will need to become a core concern in every academic field. If civic engagement is not centrally addressed - and yes, required - in the fields that students and faculty choose as their sources of identity and focus, then, for all practical purposes, civic engagement remains a marginalized concern." Dr. Schneider proposes a unified vision for liberal education and civic responsibility in every field of academic study.

I believe that education is not solely for ourselves. Education helps us understand the mysteries of the physical world that surrounds us. It helps us to understand politics and culture, ourselves and each other. And as our understanding of those things increases, so does our understanding of the God who created it all. That in turn should lead us beyond ourselves, and inspire us to build more just and equitable communities. Students who participate in service learning will expand their horizons, and hopefully discover their true vocation - to love and serve all of humankind.

In 2000 Sharon Daloz Parks published a very interesting book entitled: Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Young Adulthood in a Changing World. In her book, Professor Parks says that "the central work of the young adult era in the cycle of human life . . . is the birth of critical awareness and the dissolution and recomposition of the meaning of self, other, world, and 'God'. . . . Young adulthood is rightfully a time of asking big questions and discovering worthy dreams." And she says, "This work has enormous consequences for the years of adulthood to follow."

Because we in higher education have the privilege of accompanying young people as they do the hard work of recomposing meaning and discovering worthy dreams, we must be attentive to that process and help to shape the consequences of it for good.

As the president of Saint Mary's College, one of the things that makes me especially proud of our students is the amount of time and energy they devote to community service. Our statement of philosophy contains the following phrase - "The College nurtures awareness and compassion for a troubled world and challenges students to promote human dignity throughout their lives." At Saint Mary's, we believe we have a serious obligation to instill in all the members of our community a sense of responsibility for the common good.

In order to effectively support this effort we have an Office for Civic and Social Engagement. This office is staffed by Dr. Carrie Call and she works full time with students and staff to support our efforts in this area.

We want our students to realize the obligations that an educated person has toward society. Seventy-five percent of Saint Mary's students are involved in one form of community service or another. They work at Hannah's House, the Center for the Homeless, tutor children after school, our athletes host children stricken with cancer on campus, and this year Saint Mary's is sponsoring a house in the Rebuilding Together South Bend project. I could go on and on. Dr. Call's enthusiasm gives everyone an opportunity to discover a meaningful way to give back.

While for many of us in this audience the grounding of a belief in the importance of service comes through our religious faith, grounding can also come through humanism. The philosopher Carl Jung wrote "as far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being". Humanism, at its best, supports service as a way to maintain the health of society, to support justice, and to provide for a decent, meaningful life.

In preparing my remarks I came across a story written by Robert Coles. In his book entitled The Call of Service, A Witness to Idealism, he tells the true story of an African-American girl going to a previously all-white school at the beginning of desegregation. This story shares yet another understanding of service - that by standing up for justice we actually "do service" for those who are perpetuating injustice. Service, in this case, is a form of witness. The story takes place in New Orleans in 1961. Tessie is six years old and is escorted to school each day by armed federal marshals. Federal marshals were used because neither state nor local police were willing to protect Tessie. Each morning Tessie left her loving grandmothers' home to make the journey to her new school. And each morning a group of angry protesters stood outside her school hurling obscenities at this young and vulnerable child.

One morning Tessie hung back, tired and weary of her daily ordeal. During breakfast with her grandmother she asked if she might stay home from school. Her grandmother replied, and I quote "It's no picnic, child -going to that school. Lord Almighty, if I could just go with you, and stop there in front of that building, and call all those people to my side, and read to them from the bible and tell them, remind them, that He's up there, Jesus, watching overall of us - it don't matter who you are and what your skin color is. But I stay here, and you go -so I am not the one to tell you that you should go, because here I am, and I'll be watching television and eating or cleaning things up while you're walking by those folks. But I'll tell you, you're doing them a great favor; you're doing them a service, a big service." Her grandmother went on to say "you see my child you have to help the good Lord with His world. He puts us here - and he calls us to help Him out. He's given a call to you, a call to service - in His name!" Tessie went to school that day and the day after and the day after that. Weeks later Coles interviewed her and asked what she had learned from her experience. Tessie replied (and remember she was only 6), "If you just keep your eyes on what you're supposed to be doing, then you'll get there - to where you want to go. The marshals tell me, "Don't look at them; just walk with your head up high, and look straight ahead. So I keep trying."

Thank you for inviting me here today - I congratulate you on your commitment to our community. We know that if we all just keep trying, improvement is inevitable.

President Carol Ann Mooney
March 9, 2006