Phillip Ensler: Make service part of the curriculum

Yesterday’s national holiday honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided us with an annual reminder to engage in community service. Yet for all of the GW students who participate in community service throughout the year and the roughly 500 who participated in yesterday’s MLK Day of Service, it is clear that GW can go one step further in how the University engages in community service.

To truly reach our potential as a student body, all students should participate in some service during their time at GW. To ensure that this is done – and to promote the virtues of service – GW should make community service a requirement for students to graduate.

But instead of instituting a conventional requirement where students conduct their community service with little or no connection to their formal education, the requirement should be implemented via the service-learning courses GW already offers.

These courses are an innovative way to combine students’ education with the ideal of improving communities around us. For example, in the Community Peacebuilding course, students learn about conflict resolution in the classroom and then apply those lessons by helping local communities solve problems.

Service-learning courses are currently required in some departments, such as human services, but should become required University-wide. This can be similar to how all undergraduates must take a University Writing class as freshmen.

Conducting the service requirement through courses instead of just making students commit hours on their own schedule would make such a mandate more palatable, as students would receive credits for the work they do. This would also prevent the stigma of feeling they are forced to sacrifice their precious free time just to log hours. Instead, their service would be incorporated into their education, providing for a mutually beneficial experience to both the student and the community.

The Columbian School of Arts and Sciences offers 14 service-learning courses for this semester and some of the other undergraduate schools have such courses as well. But to accommodate all undergraduates, more service-learning courses would be needed.

The University should work to have an array of different service-learning courses. For instance, a student who is interested in medicine could participate in a course in which he or she volunteers at a local clinic. And a student who is interested in accounting could work with an organization such as LIFT-DC to help low-income persons prepare their tax returns and other financial documents.

Required community service through service-learning courses is already commonplace in colleges nationwide. For example, Roger Williams University in Rhode Island has a comprehensive program in which they offer courses in disciplines such as architecture, education, electronic communication and management.

Service-learning courses are handled on a departmental basis, which is one reason why they might not currently be required for all students. GW’s Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service is working with the various departments to expand the options for service-learning. The Center should be able to collaborate with the undergraduate schools to ensure that all the courses entail substantial and meaningful community involvement.

With such a mandate there would be other logistics to determine, such as how to reconcile the community service hours most fraternities and sororities already require their members to fulfill. Perhaps their hours could satisfy both the Greek-life and University requirements.

Some might object to this idea on the grounds that community service should only be done by those who genuinely want to serve and not in a reluctant, forced manner. But the reality is that too many Washingtonians and particularly school children suffer from malnutrition, poverty and inadequate education. This makes the need to serve meals, help draft resumes and tutor students even more of a pressing need. Communities would benefit from the contributions of having more GW students serve, regardless of their motivation and sentiments toward mandated service.

Others might say that we have enough requirements already and we shouldn’t be burdened with any more. Asking for a reasonable number of hours a semester is not asking too much of any of us, particularly when it will also enhance our education.

Particularly during our college years, when we are so immersed in pursuing our individual goals and careers, we need to be reminded of our duty to serve others. A University-wide requirement to participate in a service-learning course would simultaneously meet the goals of giving students credit, contributing to our education and bettering the lives of others.

Phillip Ensler, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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