At Boston College, we pride ourselves on being “men and women for others.” By the time we walk at graduation, a vast majority of us BC students will have participated in some form of service—through classroom-based programs such as PULSE, through service trips, or through student service groups—with many students participating in all three service models. Many BC students, myself included, will cite their experiences serving as eye-opening, formative experiences. But what, exactly, does that mean? Obviously, the experience is different for each individual as are the associated realizations, but I believe there are some shared realizations—things the majority of students who have participated in service at BC will come to recognize through their experiences. Furthermore, I believe there are shared shortcomings—things we as students often fail to recognize or choose to ignore in the face of our service experiences.
Research conducted on experiential learning models similar to those we use at BC, as well as research using the BC models, have found measurable changes in perception toward social issues such as homelessness and poverty among students who have participated in an experiential learning model. This model pairs a form of community engagement, often in the form of service, with classroom learning and reflection. Students who have participated in this model have shown a shift from attribution of individualistic reasons to systemic reasons as the underlying issue for certain societal issues. For example, prior to participation in a program with an experiential learning model, a student may attribute an individual’s poverty or homelessness to individual shortcomings such as laziness or stupidity. But, after completion of such a program that same student is more likely to identify systemic failures such as barriers to employment or barriers to education as the primary reason for the same individual’s situation.
This is a natural development and one that is to be expected if we consider the fact that many students who are identifying individualistic flaws prior to participation have never had a personal interaction with the type of individual they are assessing. Prior to the service experience, one’s understanding of the homeless or impoverished is a conceptual understanding. This understanding is framed by one’s own personal narrative and not from experience. Following a service experience, we have our own personal understanding of an individual’s background and the obstacles in their life. The individual whose situation we are assessing ceases to become a concept and, instead, becomes a person. A service experience forces us to enter into the chaos of another, and after we enter into their chaos, we recognize their efforts, their challenges, and their barriers to success.
These are the shared realizations to which I refer. While these realizations do not happen suddenly or all at once, we can often remember particular moments that represent this personal awakening—indicative of what we often call the “eye-opening experience.” For me, one of those moments came while I was volunteering at the Collaborative Education Development Group, a juvenile detention center in Jamaica Plains. I was chatting with one of the kids I had come to know and like over my few weeks of volunteering—a 12-year-old who had been in and out of the facility multiple times—when he asked me, “What were you in for?”
“Excuse me?” I asked him, convinced I had misheard the question.
“What were you in for?” he repeated.
“Are you asking me what I went to juvie for?”
“I’ve never been to juvie. I’ve never been arrested.”
As I answered, I saw my own confusion at the original question reflected in his processing of my answer. As incomprehensible as it was to me to be talking to a 12-year-old who had been in the system multiple times, it was just as foreign to him to be talking to a 19-year-old who had never been in the system once.
Now when I hear statistics about disparities in the U.S. for things such as arrest rates and graduation rates, I do not think of some faceless individuals—abstract ideas of people to whom I feel no connection. I think of that boy at the detention center. I think of the challenges he faced and those statistics begin to represent real people, and they become impossible to ignore. Systemic injustice was no longer some distant concept but a tangible, human problem. There were people being failed by the system. Children did not have adequate housing, education, or support. And while I became far more aware of how the system was failing millions of people across the country, it was not until much later that I came to recognize the other side of the story.
That boy and I are two sides of the same coin. Not only is he being failed by the system, but I am also benefitting from the same system. While he is unfairly disadvantaged, I am unfairly advantaged.
I grew up in a middle-class household with two college-educated parents. I graduated from a high school with a 99 percent graduation rate. Growing up, I had no personal exposure to people who had been in the penal system. Run-ins with the law were used as cautionary tales of what not to do—abstractions that had no bearing on my day-to-day life. I know I am by no means representative of all students at BC, but I imagine my background will sound familiar to many.
This is what I believe is our collective shortcoming. Although we are capable of recognizing how individuals are failed by the system, we are not as adept at recognizing how the system may benefit us personally. This is a natural dissonance. To acknowledge that an individual is disadvantaged by a nameless, faceless system is one thing. If we recognize ourselves as an integral part of the same system that is disadvantaging other individuals, though, we give the system a face. We give it our face. In the first situation, service is a form of generosity—an attempt to help an individual who is disadvantaged by some anonymous perpetrator—but in the second situation, service becomes something else entirely. It becomes a social responsibility to address a system that benefits us while simultaneously disadvantaging others.
Andrew Babbitt is a guest columnist for The Heights. This column is from the author’s upcoming senior thesis on service at BC.
Featured Image from Heights File