It is clear that there is a cultural distance and dissonance between GW and the diverse residential community encompassed by the district. Most of GW’s student experience is isolated, disconnected, and out of sync with the rest of the city. What is less clear is why this is a problem and how it can change. Administrators have a responsibility to encourage students early on to break 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 a great job, but I remember the inherent inadequacy of my day of service. My group and I were put on a bus that took us across the Anacostia River to Grant Park, where we worked with the non-profit City Gate to paint the fence surrounding a garden. dying. But what if that same group of students returned to Grant Park every week? They could replant that garden, make other lasting improvements, and most importantly, really 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 to burst the Foggy Bottom bubble that would enrich the lives of GW students and Washingtonians in solidarity – a requirement of the college-wide service learning program.
When I say service learning, I don’t mean service learning. I mean learning by doing service. And when I say “college-wide,” I mean a curriculum as ubiquitous and standardized as the academic 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 undergrad, at some point in their four years, to enroll in a one-semester course which places them in the field doing a service working for the surrounding community.
These courses would allow faculty to lead student efforts in concert with community organizations to apply academic work to service in the district. GW is already making great efforts in this direction, offering around 80 courses per typical year, allowing students to engage in projects with local community organizations. Existing community scholarships, such as the “Food, Nutrition and Service” course taught by Tara Scully, Director of the Sustainability Minor, provide a great model. Scully’s course, which links food science to student efforts to educate local high school students in nutritional concepts, proves the University already knows how to run a network that channels academic work into community projects. I suggest that this network be gradually extended to include all students by default.
Anyone who sees this proposition as a futile attempt to impose virtue is missing the point. This plan has merit precisely because it is a win-win, not a one-sided, charity. A service requirement would direct human resources to the prosperity of DC residents and radically improve GW student life through a more meaningful connection with the DC community.
It’s easy to feel like a visitor and not a resident as a student at GW, but few are compelled to respond. The wonder of GW, our website says, is that the city is its campus. But what that means is the part of the city where the University is located, the pleasant part, the safe part, the part with the restaurants, nightclubs and businesses and federal buildings. There seems little reason to be altered when all of our material comforts and ambitions are met in this urban terrarium. There seems little point in expanding student life beyond Foggy Bottom, the Federal District, and the upscale metropolitan area. But that is precisely why an investment in universal service would demonstrate such visionary courage, because it would mean declaring a cause and seizing it. So what do we say, and what do we get hold of?
According to one view, the University, with an endowment of $ 1.8 billion, where 70 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of family incomes and only 2.5 percent from the bottom 20 in 2017, should do more to distribute wealth. But if GW really wants to align the logic of this project with its mission, the University must think beyond.
GW must see the prospect of a universal service program not only as solving a problem or righting a wrong, but as the exploitation of an opportunity. An opportunity for students to anchor themselves in the city they inhabit during their stay at GW, to earn the reward of fellowship with those who share it and, in doing so, to develop an identity that allows them to engage. personally and passionately with the future of the Quartier.
Leading with an understanding of service learning as an opportunity for student growth is a step towards overturning conventional notions of charity that only provide the maintenance of misery rather than liberation. We need to recognize that when we work to improve the lives of others, we are not doing it because it makes us seem right, not even because it is right, but because the work improves our lives as well. This allows charity to transform into solidarity.
Above all, a universal service program is an opportunity to invest in people. On the one hand, to ensure that the well-being of the inhabitants of our national capital does not laugh at our nation’s promise. On the other hand, to make sure that GW students, who dream, perhaps more than anyone else, of political success, understand what “public service” really means.
William Bosco, a young graduate in philosophy and political science, is an opinion writer.