News from Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla.

COLUMN: Community Service

February 15, 2018

“I met a homeless person at my one and only time at the local food pantry and it made me realize that my life is great and theirs isn’t.”

Sound familiar?

It must to college admissions officers.

With the rise of mandatory community service hours in American high schools, community service is becoming an increasingly popular attribute of teenagers’ resumés.

But it’s all being done in the wrong manner.

While mandating a certain number of hours sounds good on paper, in reality, it becomes the archetypal school-board-pleasing dog and pony show. What is intended to be an “enriching” activity for impressionable 13-18 year olds becomes students pretending to prescribe meaning to something they were essentially forced to do. Every high schooler knows what that feels like.

If we want to get teens involved in the community, we need to let them seek out opportunities that interest them personally. There are so many ways to help other people; if we educate teenagers in all the areas of community service, they’re more likely to find something they enjoy and therefore continue to volunteer in their adult life.

I mean, I once watched someone hurriedly complete a required service reflection in the middle of a food court while scarfing down a Doritos Locos Taco. All while talking about how much he hated the place where he had volunteered. Does that sound enriching? Does that seem like he’ll continue volunteering in adulthood? Somehow, I get the impression that he won’t.

We can, and we must, make sure that high schoolers’ community service is something they’re personally interested in.

Another way to make community service more effective than just a few forms is to talk to the teenagers themselves, and get their perspective. It’s like when Chicago schools considered making college acceptances and/ or job offers a graduation requirement. Teenagers are still incredibly fluid, haven’t-figured-myself-out-yet people. Giving us more requirements and more walls blocking off potential life paths won’t help us. The only way to effectively change teens is to talk to us, and see what we think before passing legislation or school board bylaws that will impact our lives.

If we play our cards right, mandated community service in high schools could help people get involved at an early age. It could make an entire generation that sees the benefits of giving back. That can genuinely find enrichment in donating their time and effort to selfless causes. And maybe, just maybe, it could create a generation that can write an original, thought-provoking community service essay.

And that’s a future that admissions officers, along with the rest of us, would like to see.

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