Why should we serve? A look at the University’s service culture



Maria Lynn

Over the years, the word “service” has come to mean many different things to me.  As a student who has participated in both Villanova Day of Service and the Sophomore Service Learning Community (SSLC), I can conclude that serving others is a fundamental part of Villanova’s culture.  Throughout my year as an SSLC volunteer, I learned that service is a privilege in itself. We have a responsibility to those around us who are not able to accomplish the same feats or live in the same ways that we do.  Most importantly, we have a responsibility to learn from the people we serve and to change things in our lives that keep us from growing to be better individuals and members of our community. 

Throughout the course of my student career, I have become more aware of how service affects what it means to be a Villanova student and also in the way it affects the activities and small organizations I am involved in.  Last year in particular, I noticed issues of race come up more frequently because of certain classes I was enrolled in and because of the service site I had chosen.  I was more aware of the forces of power and privilege because of the women I worked with at Sisters Returning Home, a  program for previously incarcerated women looking to re-enter society.  Last semester, I would go about my daily routine thinking about how the ladies at my service site did not have the same opportunities as me.  

So why should we care about service? The act of serving a group of people or an individual may bring a sense of satisfaction to those who serve, yet the focus of service on this campus is reflection.

“People should care about service because it is the opportunity to experience other communities and gain perspective of people who are very different from you,” volunteer Cathy Harwarth said. “Perspective is everything and that, if people could truly see and experience the struggles of others, the world would be a much more empathetic place. It takes going into other communities and reaching out to people in order to be able to even slightly understand the daily struggles people go through.”

 Harwarth started volunteering at Graterford Prison last semester through SSLC and it has drastically changed the way she looked at the experience for the  criminal justice system and people who are incarcerated. 

“I realized how our system puts people of minority races at a severe disadvantage and takes advantage of the way society views them. Harwarth hopes to be an advocate for change, through discussing it with my peers and making others aware of the injustices.”

Students involved in SSLC participate in at least three hours of service per week at a service site that they work at for a full semester, with an additional class period called their “fourth hour” of service.  This class period acts as a time to reflect on issues including poverty, race, power and privilege.  Reflection and speaking about service in general is almost as influential as the act of serving because it reaches a larger audience and it helps people feel more connected to the work they are doing. “Service without reflection is dangerous,” former SSLC member Tim Ponciano said. “To be able to unpack our experiences through reflecting on our service puts us one step closer to understanding the systematic problems facing the people we serve.” 

The smallest things need to be taken into account when working with people, especially children, who are experiencing poverty, and it is important to ask ourselves why these things are the way they are.  Noreen Cameron, Director of Service Learning, encourages her students to “lean into discomfort” and to place themselves in spaces they have never gone before.  While SSLC is actively practicing this, it is something that our community should spend time working on even after leaving this campus.