Durham News: Opinion

The myth of community service and college admissions

I recently read how college admissions are driving students to become fraudulent philanthropists, performing good deeds for the sake of their resumes and not their souls.

I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering. I graduated from UNC a Buckley Public Service scholar, meaning I contributed 300 hours of community service during four years. But that article I read took me back to my middle school blood-drive days.

Every student had to participate, donating either blood or time but preferably both. We all received calling lists of past donors.

“Hello, can I drain a vital part of your body out to fulfill my community service requirement? I really need an A in social studies.”

Twenty phone calls later – mostly screened or prematurely slammed on the receiver – I was desperate. I didn’t weigh enough to give blood, so I couldn’t volunteer myself as a donor. I turned to begging the people who’d already invested parts of their bodies in creating me: my parents.

Dad got off the hook. He taught high school, and he had to give blood to avoid a mob of students at his door every six months requesting another sample. But Mom had never given blood before, nor did she wish to.

“I have to watch your brother!”

“You can come during school hours. It starts at 1:00.”

“I’ve been overseas!”

“More than ten years ago! Doesn’t count.”

“I have a heart condition!”

“The doctors cleared you!”

Finally, she ran out of excuses, and I signed her up. My benevolent teacher noticed I was only able to cough up one name, so she let me make up the other one by volunteering extra hours at the snack table. My job was to replenish the piles of Little Debbie snacks, pour lemonade, and make sure none of the recently drained patrons looked deathly pale. For the first hour, I never had to call over one of the nurses.

Then Mom came in.

I peered at her from afar while her blood was drawn. She chatted amicably with the nurse. But as she approached the snack table, I watched her face turn from the color of the Red Cross symbol to the white flag background. I shoved a Honey Bun, a cup of lemonade, and a million apologies at her.

“I’ve killed my mother for community-service credit!” I fretted.

She was too weak to respond as a nurse rushed over and took her pulse. But her eyes said, “How dare you sacrifice me for this?”

Next blood drive, I volunteered for eight straight hours at the snack table to avoid naming any donors.

Before I’m called callous, I understand the grave importance of blood donations and acknowledge that the Red Cross does hard work to provide a necessary service. But an eighth grader shouldn’t bear the brunt of all that.

Tying service to personal accomplishment (like getting into a good college) is bound to get people doing good things for the “wrong” reasons. I pondered this question a lot when I started applying for jobs after college graduation. Turns out, employers prefer you motivated by the more predictable of muses: money. My year spent tutoring middle schoolers for Americorp didn’t mean much, nor did my time teaching underperforming students during summer school or leading writing workshops at a homeless shelter or any of the other activities I did for little or no money.

Of course, I had fulfilling experiences and learned from volunteering, but it provided me next to nothing in the way of the social capital for the professional world. The skills I developed were somehow lesser because I wasn’t paid for them. I felt betrayed by the college admissions rush that taught me to make myself appear well rounded and civic-minded by volunteering. The utility of such stopped after getting into a university, and I’ve heard numerous times that it’s only a myth that extracurricular activities even matter in admissions decisions.

These two poles – the pressure of middle school blood-drive participation and the uselessness of my service-filled resume – leaves me wondering what values employers are instilling in the recently graduated. I shouldn’t feel like I wasted all my time helping people. I don’t regret how I spent my time; I only wish employers considered my experiences as valuable as I do.

There appears to be little incentive for volunteering besides the personal. Which is a shame. The sad truth is that people aren’t going to have the time to give, and the burden falls on eighth graders’ social studies homework. Forced participation reminds me of poor Mom’s pale face. But sometimes that’s what it takes to get enough help for those who need it. Maybe if we valued that kind of work more highly, then forcing people wouldn’t be necessary.

Samantha McCormick lives in Durham and will begin a Masters of Arts in Teaching degree at Duke in July so she can start her teaching career. You can contact her at samanthagmcc@gmail.com.