Tonight, the Service Bazaar will be held in Dwight Hall. Freshmen and upperclassmen will have the opportunity to choose causes they feel passionate about; they will pick the organizations they want to be involved with at Yale, at least for now.
Since my first foray into the Bazaar — and service — at Yale, I have become both a huge advocate of and a huge cynic about service here. I have looked on as students built wonderful organizations that died because they could not make a transition to new leadership; I have listened to stories of (and experienced) nightmare flake-outs from well-intentioned and disorganized fellow students; I have also been moved almost to tears by students doing magnificent work here and around the world.
While studying these different responses to service work, I’ve drawn some conclusions about why Yalies serve and what we must do better — more self-consciously — in the future, because the stakes of service work in this city and outside of it are too high for us to give much less than our full attention.
Many (perhaps most) Yalies came to college having done service work at home. Some found this work inspiring and want to continue it in college; others are entirely burnt out and looking for a change. But most students I have spoken to seem to feel that there is an unspoken assumption that you should want to serve the local community, particularly when the community in question is as underprivileged as New Haven.
I am going to make a bold statement that my colleagues at Dwight Hall will have to forgive me for making: Don’t serve because you feel you should, or because it’s good for you, or because people will judge you if you do not. Those people who sign up for service panlists to placate an internal sense of guilt are wasting the energy they will spend deleting or ignoring those emails; likewise, coordinators who go wildly out of their way to recruit massive crowds for their organizations are probably setting themselves up for heartbreak and frustration.
I say this both as someone who has signed up for panlists and never responded to a single email and as someone who has sent out more than a few emails that have not gotten responses. A little honesty and self-reflection on both sides would have saved all of us from our well-intentioned, eager-to-please selves.
I do not mean to suggest, however, that service work should be a huge commitment of time or emotion. There are many wonderful opportunities to serve the New Haven community and communities outside New Haven in small ways, whether through joining a group that performs locally, signing protests and writing letters or making a regular effort to go serve food at a soup kitchen or fold blankets at a shelter.
What I do mean to say about service work is that actions done, or more often, not done, have substantial effects on organizations and communities. Having spent significant time at New Haven non-profits that count on Yale students for enthusiasm and manpower, I have seen the profound consequences of student flake-outs: People who need important basic services don’t receive them. Non-profit employees and administrators, an overwhelmingly overworked and underpaid group, are left to struggle on without the student help that can be crucial to making an event or campaign a success.
I trust that the vast majority of last minute cancellations or attacks of extreme lateness are not malicious or pre-meditated: They are merely the results of hectic busyness, exhaustion and failure to think ahead.
But it is this failure to plan and to self-assess that causes problems in the long run. If you feel you should want to help but don’t genuinely want to, if high school service left you reeling and you’d really just like to do class and friends right now, if you’re still looking for the extracurricular that is going to light up your life, don’t half-heartedly sign-up. You’ll regret it — and the people you’re not helping will too.
Ultimately, the greatest service you can do is to give of yourself graciously and completely to whatever cause or organization — and I hope it’s only a few — you do choose. Because the ability to pick one particular activity or cause and truly make it your own is a grossly under-rated virtue at Yale. Tonight, go to the Bazaar to look and consider new possibilities, and find something you are really, truly excited about. Then, go do it.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.