Relief is ongoing in the immediate aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, and the Columbia community is participating in the efforts. In the past week or so, students have helped clean the streets of the city and served food at shelters in areas not as lucky as Morningside Heights. Administrators and staff have made an effort to link volunteers with the services that need them. We have opened our doors to our peers and friends in need of a hot shower and a phone charge, and much of the mobilization has been organic, with friends and colleagues calling and texting and emailing to let each other know where their aid is needed.
I will admit here parenthetically that I was on a plane to another country last Thursday, and felt guilty for having to turn down some of those calls. So it’s all imperfect, of course, and we could always be doing more to help, but there has certainly been no shortage of goodwill, of genuine concern for our community and our city. If we could help, we did. Those of us who were able to did so without a second thought. It was simply the right thing to do.
I don’t think that we care any less for our neighbors in this city normally. It’s just the nature of these disasters to disrupt our normal, busy lives and remind us of the fragility of our communities. It’s also the nature of these disasters to quickly fade in our memories as life goes on and things return to “normal.” After the initial outpouring of support, aid often dwindles quickly even as the need continues to exist. We saw this after Hurricane Katrina and after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as reconstruction proved a more difficult, drawn-out process than initially expected. Whether we forget about the local inequities and inadequacies revealed by the hurricane or stay deeply involved in working towards solutions is our choice.
I do not think it would be too far off the mark to say that Columbia students are generally socially conscious, politically aware, and eager to make some kind of (positive) impact on their world. A good place to start would be next door. Affordable housing, access to health care, and the state of our public spaces are just a few of the perennial issues thrown in sharp relief by the damage we have seen around the University. Undoubtedly, student activism in community outreach is not novel, but this is an opportunity for us to reflect on how active we really are in our community. Too much of the good we purport to do is superficial or done for the wrong reasons and ultimately less significant than we would like. Having Columbia Community Outreach as our one organized service event every year is definitely better than having nothing, yet one wonders if one event a year provides a real connection between students, the University, and the community. Other times, service is viewed cynically, as just that much more padding on the résumé—a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.
One could argue that as long as people are being helped, the motivation behind the service does not really matter. As a coordinator for Student Health Outreach, I hear this rationalization often. Our volunteers are invariably premed students. The problem with having mixed motives is captured by the high attrition rate of many service groups, including my own. A student may join my group, drawn by a small time commitment and a good pitch that can be regurgitated on medical school applications, only to flake after a week or two. The sites we work in (mainly soup kitchens) are smelly, the clients can be abrasive or difficult, and other commitments compete for a volunteer’s attention. It is easy for our hypothetical premed to rationalize not showing up. After all, how many people can he really help anyway? He might only talk to 10 people a week at a shift.
The only way to avoid such superficial aid is to make a genuine attempt to be engaged in the community. The conversations with those 10 people must not be seen as a weekly chore but rather as an enriching and rewarding experience for both parties. Something as basic as really listening, without condescension, to an impoverished person’s tale of her trials and tribulations in navigating the Medicaid system can make a huge difference in that person’s day, precisely because it happens so infrequently. Meaningful involvement, whether in volunteering, community politics, environmental advocacy, or any of the myriad ways we try to reach out to our community, means not losing sight of the people we want to help. It means listening to the community. And it is something Columbia should strive for, not because it would be a boost to a résumé or provide good PR. It is simply the right thing to do.
Bob Sun is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and biology. He is a member of the Committee of Instruction. Terms of Engagement runs alternate Thursdays.