GW should implement a community service learning requirement

It’s clear that there is a cultural distance and dissonance between GW and the diverse residential community encompassed by the District. The experience of most GW students is isolated, disconnected and out of sync with the rest of the city. What’s less clear is why this is a problem and how it can change. Administrators have a responsibility to encourage students early on to burst out of the Foggy Bottom bubble.

Each year, GW holds its Freshman Day of Service hosted by the Honey Nashman Center. Overall the Nashman Center does great work, but I remember the inadequacy inherent to my day of service. My group and I were placed on a bus that carried us across the Anacostia River to Grant Park where we worked with the non-profit City Gate to paint the fence surrounding a dying garden. But what if that same group of students returned to Grant Park every week? They could replant that garden, make other sustainable improvements, and most importantly, they could truly get to know the people who benefit from their work. In service work, breadth without depth undermines quality and prevents solidarity. A University-wide commitment to recurring service could provide both. I see a way of bursting the Foggy Bottom bubble that would enrich the lives of GW students and Washingtonians in solidarity – a University-wide service learning curriculum requirement.

When I say service learning, I don’t mean learning about service. I mean learning through the practice of service. And when I say “University-wide” I mean a curriculum as ubiquitous and normalized as the University Writing requirement. I’m talking about GW setting an example for all major universities, showing that it’s not only possible but powerful for every undergraduate, at some time in their four years, to enroll in a semester-long course that places them on the ground doing service work for the surrounding community.

These courses would allow faculty to direct the efforts of students in concert with community organizations to apply academic work to service in the District. GW already makes a strong effort at this, offering about 80 courses in the typical year, which allow students to engage in projects with local community organizations. Existing Community Engaged Scholarship, like the “Food, Nutrition and Service” course taught by Tara Scully, the director of the sustainability minor, offer a great model. Scully’s course, which connects the science of food to student efforts in educating local high school students on nutritional concepts, proves that the University already knows how to manage a network that channels academic work into community projects. I’m suggesting this network be gradually expanded to include all students by default.

Anyone who sees this proposal as a wasteful attempt to mandate virtue is missing the point. This plan has merit precisely because it’s a win-win, not one-sided charity. A service requirement would direct human resources towards the prosperity of D.C. residents, and radically improve GW student life via a more meaningful connection to the D.C. community.

It’s easy to feel like a visitor and not a resident as a student at GW, but few are compelled to address it. The wonder of GW, our website says, is that the city is its campus. But what this means is a part of the city where the University is located, the nice part, the safe part, the part with the restaurants, the nightclubs and the firms and federal buildings. There seems little cause for amendment when all our material comforts and ambitions are fulfilled within this urban terrarium. There seems little value in extending student life beyond Foggy Bottom, the Federal district, and the upscale metro area. But this is precisely why an investment in universal service would show such visionary courage, because it would mean declaring a cause and taking hold of its value. What then, are we declaring, and what are we taking hold of?

One view is that the University, with an endowment of $1.8 billion, where 70 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of family incomes and just 2.5 percent from the bottom 20 as of 2017, should do more to spread the wealth. But if GW truly wants to align the rationale of this project with its mission, the University must think beyond this.

GW must see the prospect of a universal service curriculum not just as fixing a problem or righting a wrong, but as taking advantage of an opportunity. An opportunity for students to ground themselves in the city they inhabit during their time at GW, to gain the reward of communion with those who share it, and in doing so develop an identity which allows them to engage personally and passionately with the future of the District.

Leading with understanding service learning as an opportunity for the growth of students is a step toward upending conventional notions of charity that provide only maintenance of misery rather than liberation. We must recognize that when we work to improve the lives of others we do so not because it makes us look right, not even because it is right, but because the work improves our lives too. This allows charity to turn into solidarity.

Above all, a universal service curriculum is an opportunity to invest in people. On one hand, to ensure that the well-being of people in our nation’s capital does not mock the promise of our nation. On the other, to make certain that GW students, who dream, perhaps more fervently than any others, of political success, understand what “public service” really means.

William Bosco, a junior majoring in philosophy and political science, is an opinions writer.

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