Service Culture at BC: Doing More Harm than Good?

by Eileen Corkery



Scrolling through my Facebook feed, scenes of daily life in Chestnut Hill light up the screen: a sunshine soaked Marathon Monday, an elated group of Showdown dancers, and an artfully shot Gassongram. However, social media fails to capture one of the cornerstones of life at Boston College: its culture of service. According to the university’s annual fact book, the BC student body performs more than 444,000 hours of community service throughout the year. In the Allston/ Brighton neighborhood alone, some 1,000 undergraduate students volunteer in schools and community centers every week.


Three of the most popular service organizations at BC are PULSE, 4Boston, and Appalachia Volunteers. Each provides a unique program model, as well as a specialized mission statement. PULSE and 4Boston volunteers serve weekly in the Greater Boston community and engage in group reflections. In addition to volunteering, PULSE students also take a 6-credit course in theology and philosophy. Students who participate in Appalachia Volunteers learn about social justice issues throughout the school year, culminating in a weeklong service trip during spring break. While most of these trips travel to the Appalachian region, the program’s popularity has allowed it to expand to other communities outside of Appalachia such as Detroit.


While these programs do a lot of good, there are critics of BC’s brand of service. Some argue that while volunteering is good, the university should put a greater focus on justice and advocacy. Service is just a temporary fix, but promoting justice and advocacy could bring about an end to injustice. Others argue that BC’s service programs border on “voluntourism,” and fail to properly give back to the Boston community; they say that the effort and money spent on service trips do not equal the work given back to the communities.


While justice and advocacy are important, I would respond to critics that service is essential to an undergraduate Jesuit education. In my PULSE class sophomore year, we read Ursula LeGuin’s Those Who Walk Away from Omelas. LeGuin describes a utopian city where all citizens live in peace, and there is no pain and suffering. However, the citizens soon learn that the happiness of their city is made possible because of the suffering of a single child. After seeing the child’s suffering, some citizens choose to walk away from this utopian city. Because they witnessed this injustice, the citizens feel obligated to sacrifice their own comfort and attempt to save the suffering child.


I believe it is important for Boston College students to be in solidarity with these communities and to be exposed to the realities of poverty in person. For me, there is something powerful about witnessing poverty because I can never unsee it. Suddenly, there is this restless urge inside of me to find a way to help. This restlessness--this frustration-- is good because it will drive many of us to try to help someday when we have more time, more resources, and more power than we do now. Service programs are important because they expose students to injustices that they can one day help correct. Like the citizens of Omelas, college students who participate in service programs have witness an injustice that they one day can work to put right.


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