During the recent days of campaigning for CCSC elections, Stand Columbia ran on a platform advocating community service. President-elect Learned Foote, CC '11, paints a rather gloomy picture—an image of New York City as lacking in community service. He believes that, by reinvigorating the system of incentives for community service at Columbia, we can turn around our abysmal record of service as a school (as our standings in Michael Bloomberg's "College Challenge" reflect, St. John's' score triples ours despite its inferior number of students) and help to single-handedly move the city forward. When asked what specifically the problem to be addressed was, Foote and VP Campus Life-elect Andrea Folds, CC '12, were in firm agreement: Columbia students tend to see community service as something external to their lives, which they must travel far from campus to complete. And insomuch as they view service in this way, they see it as a foreign obligation—four hours to fulfill every few weeks to sleep soundly. I am inclined to believe Foote's over-arching narrative, but I must admit that certain niggling facts have led me to question some of the details of the story. Upon further thought, I have an idea for Stand Columbia to consider before fully settling into office. There is an odd discrepancy between the number of hours we clock in service as a school, and the number of service organizations that rise up on campus. Every year, we see new organizations proposed, all with unique—at times borderline excessively specific—aims. Not all come to fruition, though, as the generation of ideas outpaces the rate at which Columbia, via Community Impact, can fund them. Clearly, there is no dearth of interest in service nor in continual service programs—but instead, we have one-day events like Columbia Community Outreach. Students seek lasting engagements, but it seems like they seek them in areas relating directly to their passions. Perhaps this wouldn't be a problem at another school, but with a population of interests as diverse as Columbia's, in order to satisfy the lust for regular service opportunities in fields of passion for which students fight, we would have to flood CI with money and expand the funding and recognition mandate of numerous governing bodies. Of course, these groups won't get much more than shoestring funding. And although folks like Jesse Horwitz, CC '10, have written in this paper to encourage students that "you can accomplish a lot as a Columbia student group without enormous funding," the simple fact is that some specializations of service are more costly than others. And some require a great deal of time to navigate red tape when breaking new service grounds, as has been seen in the prolonged struggles of the Grant Houses Community Garden Project (a student initiative attempting to establish a communal garden in a public housing complex). All the red tape and funding required to start a new service initiative, especially if one is rejected by CI or the Student Governing Board, sucks up massive amounts of time. But we are only here for four years. Only the most passionate students will invest the necessary efforts. And only a few of them shall succeed, leaving a graveyard of others to further discourage new innovation. And to address this mess of red tape and funding, Stand Columbia has proposed the following idea over and over: Integrate service into the classroom, by creating incentives of academic bonuses for students to give time to the community. And then create awareness of opportunities on our doorstep, so as to discourage students from seeing service as something they can only do in the far-off reaches of Queens. This seems to be a strange way of addressing the issue of community service at Columbia. Giving academic incentives for service does nothing to address the mindset among students performing the limited-engagement service Stand Columbia has described (and which, we see, may not be the full picture). Rather, it encourages more short bursts of indiscriminate and clumsy action to better one's own GPA. One might suggest an alternative of taking money away from CCO, a promoter of brief spurts of (participant criticisms this year are an indicator) rather self-congratulatory and make-work projects, and redirecting it towards funding new groups. But not even that would be right. Even the most passionate students cannot spread themselves too thin, and creating a separate service group for their continual and ardent engagement may be an unnecessary drainage of time and energies better spent on service. Perhaps, we should instead focus on creating incentives of status, funding, promotion, etc., for existing interest groups to create service arms. Maybe we can find a way to use structures already in place to encourage service that is lasting and engaging but fulfills a niche. It's a concept in its infancy, but one for students and Stand Columbia to entertain in the coming days. Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff