Why I Serve: A Student’s Perspective

VT Student Posted by Liz Machesney, a senior majoring in Human Development and Spanish. She is a member of VT Engage’s SERVE Living Learning Community.

Most of you who read this blog regularly or only stumbled upon it today are likely involved in or interested in service. I fit into this group of people too.

Before reading any further, take a moment to think about why you serve.

Three years ago, as a freshman at Virginia Tech and a member of the SERVE Living Learning Community, I was faced with this question.

Why did I choose to spend my freshman year (and subsequently all four years of college) surrounded by people who commit themselves to service?

I didn’t quite know the answer then, and I’m still figuring it out. But there have been stepping-stones along the way that helped me approach a more complete understanding of my answer.

Within the first couple months of classes, all SERVE freshmen had an assignment to write our own “My Why”. From that reflection, I concluded that I served because I wanted to make a difference. Looking at that now, I think it’s nice, but I also know there’s much more to my motivation.

Later that semester, we read Ivan Illich’s essay, “To Hell with Good Intentions”, which says anyone interested in international service will do more harm than good. Illich goes on to advise volunteers to stay in their own country to do service, because at least there they would cause a little less harm.

I hated the essay upon my first reading – who is this guy to tell me that I couldn’t make a difference? That serving internationally would disrupt order?

Throughout college, I’ve read more essays and participated in service opportunities, locally, in other states, and (certainly to Illich’s dismay) in the Dominican Republic.

SERVE students assist with rebuilding and clean-up efforts following the 2011 Pulaski tornado.
SERVE students assist with rebuilding and clean-up efforts following the 2011 Pulaski tornado.
While all of my experiences contributed to my current response to “My Why,”, there’s one experience that stands out more than others.

During winter break my sophomore year, I returned to the DR for my second international service trip. During that week, we served with the Community Service Alliance, working with youth who had athletic potential.

They were part of a program that trained them to be professional baseball and softball players, with the ultimate goal of getting recruited to a U.S. team. Along with the athletic training, they also participated in English, computer skills, and leadership workshops. This way, if professional sports didn’t work out, they had other skill-sets to fall back on.

My group’s role was to help construct baseball fields and assist in teaching the leadership and computer workshops. But I think our entire group would agree that we felt we served them most by the relationships we established.

Serving in the Dominican Republic.
Serving in the Dominican Republic.

We all fit into the same age group, and several of us, including me, were proficient in Spanish. We talked about singers we liked, taught each other dance moves, and attempted to explain pick-up lines, which involved some very broken Spanish and a lot of confused faces.

During this time, we created our own community. Our differences were put aside, and we saw each other as brothers and sisters, albeit living under different circumstances.

Jose Enrique is one of the friends I made. He and I established a connection early on – we worked on the fields side by side and sat together for meals.

About halfway through the trip, he said to me, “Estoy triste,” or “I’m sad.”

Caught off guard, I asked him why, and then he asked when we were leaving. I told him “in a few days”, and he said that was why he was sad. That afternoon I saw him tearing up and heard his friends joke he was “como un grifo,” or “like a faucet.”

Let’s talk about vulnerability now. This group opened up their lives to us and showed us the underdeveloped communities where they were from. They shared their stories with us and talked about why they were in the program.

Their stories highlighted a big difference between our groups. As Americans we came from a country rich in opportunity, while it seemed Dominicans had access to far fewer opportunities.

It was difficult for us to come to terms with the fact that this exists simply because of an uncontrollable circumstance: where we are born. It didn’t seem fair, and for me that still doesn’t seem fair.
Virginia Tech has partnered with locally-run DR nonprofit the Community Service Alliance for 9+  years.
Virginia Tech has partnered with locally-run DR nonprofit the Community Service Alliance for 9+  years.

Back to vulnerability – on top of the Dominicans opening their lives to us, Jose Enrique (and eventually many others) displayed sadness and shared complete honesty, something I often find difficult to do even with those closest to me. When he told me he was sad we were leaving, I had to walk away to contain myself.

I burst into tears and vented to another volunteer from our group. Why did it have to be so unfair? Why did our group have so much more privilege than the Dominicans? Why did Americans have to be so arrogant that we weren’t able to show appreciation and gratitude for the simple things?

Why did we find it so necessary to amplify the differences between our selves and the Dominicans by traveling and paying to “help” them get out of their difficult situations?

Why was I even on this trip if the only effect I could have was emphasizing that we had privilege and opportunity and they didn’t?

*Deep breath*

My emotions were getting the best of me and while my feelings and concerns were completely genuine, they were a bit dramatic for my normally level-headed demeanor. The value in the intensity of that moment was that it made me step back and think again about why I serve.

Group pose after installing a water filter in a family home.
Group pose after installing a water filter in a family home.

And this was when I discovered part of “My Why.” Yes, difference exists between all people because of circumstances both in our control and out of our control.

I’ve learned our differences can draw us together to help each another. We can help each other understand that our differences don’t have to be as significant as we make them out to be.

So, why do I serve?
I serve to work toward a more just world where we all see one another as equals.

This semester, Liz is participating in a field study through the VT Engage office for her Human Development major. Her project includes working as teaching assistant for “Exploring Citizenship Leadership” (LDRS 1015) and assisting with the management of our travel grants.

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October 17, 2014

Posted In: International service, Student view