Doing Service For Personal Growth

During the Arrupe International kick-off event last week, I listened to Tiziana Dearing, a professor from the Boston College School of Social Work, deliver a compelling speech regarding the self-serving benefits of volunteering. She explained to a room full of prospective Arrupe participants that we should “make no mistake about who is doing the giving and who is doing the receiving” while we prepare for our upcoming service trips. Of course, one week spent volunteering in an underprivileged region of the Caribbean will not change the circumstances of those affected by institutional causes of poverty. We simply cannot alter the weakness of the infrastructures of Latin American countries, which continues to be  exacerbated by the consequences of climate change and failed government policies.

But until Dearing reminded me of the objectively minimal external effects of our service, I had convinced myself that participating in service trips like Arrupe constituted an attempt to somehow improve the livelihoods of strangers. Rather than considering myself selfless for dedicating time to Arrupe, I immediately recognized that the purpose of my volunteering is to undergo an individual transformation. By signing up and agreeing to fundraise for the program, I was only continuing to invest in my own growth.

The service opportunities available to BC students, through which we can visit underdeveloped regions, provide the ability to experience the perspective—even for just a short amount of time—of those who suffer from poverty and to humanize the truth of others’ hardships that we often ignore in our daily lives. Ultimately, taking the time to listen to the stories of others and to demonstrate compassion results in us receiving the greatest benefit of deepening our understanding of the world. Although our volunteering efforts do tangibly impact humanity, the broader consequence of committing ourselves to service projects involves a step toward personal change and must consist of a long-term commitment to social justice through our prospective careers.

The humbling views gained from service opportunities are meant to be translated into our plans for the future—adhering to the dogma of acting as “men and women for others” requires a pledge to service beyond the brief volunteer hours we place on our resumes. To consider ourselves truly charitable, we must carry our experiences back to campus and integrate them into our everyday behaviors. For instance, after participating in an Arrupe immersion trip and witnessing the undeniable impact of climate change on many workers in developing countries, students should try to become more politically active and change their consumption patterns. Similarly, immersion trips like Appalachia Volunteers should prompt students to reflect on societal realities and to redefine their individual definitions of service to align with lifelong prospects. We need more than one service trip and a list of volunteer hours to deem ourselves committed to values of compassion and faith. A life that advances Jesuit ideals requires a life-long commitment to the dignity of others that cannot be condensed to a section of a resume, but rather incorporates service into a full-time career. We should not expect to receive praise for undertaking temporary service commitments, as we are not “giving back” until we apply the lessons learned in these transformative encounters to careers that may actually contribute to the systemic upheavals necessary to eliminate injustice.

Referring to Appa, Dearing asserted, “The houses you build were going to get built anyway.” She stressed that what matters is that your actions through short-lived service, although they cannot change the world, mark the first step toward a life committed to bettering the communities that we serve. Our career paths may range from working in nonprofits to hedge funds, but the personal sense of responsibility we develop from volunteering must guide our decisions by recognizing our power to make a difference beyond our personal lives. Above all, we must avoid considering ourselves generous and the epitome of Jesuit agapic love when we commit to service at BC. By embarking on service trips relatively regularly, we apply ourselves to personal development and gain the clear incentive needed to eventually devote ourselves fully to a world in need. But until we orient our careers around the wish to eradicate unjust economic inequalities and begin to target the root of systemic structures that maintain the cycles of injustice, we are not giving.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor