GW should implement a community service-learning requirement – The GW Hatchet
It is clear that there is a cultural distance and dissonance between GW and the diverse residential community encompassed by the district. The experience of most GW students is isolated, disconnected and out of step with the rest of the city. What’s less clear is why it’s a problem and how it might change. Administrators have a responsibility to encourage students early on to get out of the Foggy Bottom bubble.
Each year, GW holds its first service day hosted by the Honey Nashman Center. Overall, the Nashman Center is doing a great job, but I remember the inherent inadequacy of my day of service. My group and I were placed on a bus that took us across the Anacostia River to Grant Park where we worked with the non-profit organization City Gate to paint the fence surrounding a garden in dying. What if that same group of students returned to Grant Park every week? They could replant that garden, make other lasting improvements, and most importantly, they could really get to know the people who benefit from their work. In service work, breadth without depth undermines quality and prevents solidarity. A University-wide commitment to recurring service could provide both. I see a way to burst the Foggy Bottom Bubble that would enrich the lives of GW students and Washingtonians in Solidarity – a requirement of the University-wide service-learning program.
When I say service learning, I don’t mean service learning. I mean learning by doing service. And when I say “university-wide,” I mean a curriculum as ubiquitous and standardized as the academic writing requirement. I’m talking about GW setting an example for all great universities, showing that it’s not only possible but powerful for every undergraduate student at some point in their four years to enroll in a course a semester that puts him in the field doing service work for the surrounding community.
These courses would allow faculty to lead student efforts in concert with community organizations to apply academic work to service in the district. GW already makes a big push in this regard, offering around 80 courses in the typical year, which allows students to engage in projects with local community organizations. Existing community scholarships, such as the “Food, Nutrition, and Service” course taught by Tara Scully, the director of the sustainability minor, provide an excellent model. Scully’s course, which links food science with student efforts to educate local high school students about nutritional concepts, proves the University already knows how to manage a network that channels academic work into community projects. I suggest that this network be gradually extended to include all students by default.
Anyone who regards this proposition as a useless attempt to impose virtue is missing the point. This plan has merit precisely because it is a win-win, not one-sided charity. A service requirement would direct human resources toward the prosperity of DC residents and radically improve the lives of GW students through a more meaningful connection to the DC community.
It’s easy to feel like a visitor and not a resident as a student at GW, but few are compelled to respond. The wonder of GW, our website says, is that the city is its campus. But what that means is a part of town where the University is, the nice part, the safe part, the part with the restaurants, the night clubs and the businesses and the federal buildings. There seems little reason to mend our ways when all our material comforts and ambitions are satisfied in this urban terrarium. There seems little point in extending student life beyond Foggy Bottom, the Federal District, and the upscale metropolitan area. But that is precisely why an investment in universal service would demonstrate such visionary courage, because it would be about asserting a cause and owning its value. What then do we declare, and what do we seize upon?
One view is that the University, with an endowment of $1.8 billion, where 70% of students come from the top 20% family income and only 2.5% from the bottom 20 in 2017, should do more to distribute the wealth. But if GW really wants to align the logic of this project with its mission, the University must think beyond that.
GW must view the prospect of a universal service program not just as solving a problem or righting a wrong, but as the chance to capitalize on an opportunity. An opportunity for students to become grounded in the city they call home during their time at GW, earn the reward of fellowship with those who share it, and in doing so, develop an identity that allows them to engage personally and passionately with the future of the Quartier.
Leading by understanding service-learning as an opportunity for student growth is a step toward overturning conventional notions of charity that provide only a continuation of misery rather than a release. We need to recognize that when we work to improve the lives of others, we don’t do it because it makes us look good, or even because it’s right, but because the work also improves our lives. This allows charity to turn into solidarity.
Above all, a universal service program is an opportunity to invest in people. On the one hand, to ensure that the well-being of the people in our nation’s capital does not detract from our nation’s promise. On the other hand, to ensure that GW students, who dream, perhaps more ardently than others, of political success, understand what “public service” really means.
William Bosco, a recent graduate in philosophy and political science, is an opinion writer.