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Rethinking Volunteering: A Novel English Curriculum at UW

June 28, 2013

I’ve done my fair share of volunteering, but doing so as part of a class was new to me. Fortunately, English 121: Writing as a Force for Social Change proved to be a very rewarding experience.

When originally signing up for the class — English composition is a graduation requirement at UW — I was unaware that volunteering was part of the curriculum. Yet, as I began engaging in class discussions and service work, I was glad that I made the choice that I did during registration.

The class intertwines service learning with writing and discussion. Students are supposed to choose a volunteering position with one of seven organizations partnered with the UW Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center. The Center was first established in 1992 when Edward E. Carlson, a Seattle civic leader and former UW Regent, gave a gracious gift of $100,000 dollars to increase the impact students can make in their communities. Today the Center connects students with various organizations that include working with the local food bank, tutoring kids at the Boys and Girls Club, and many others. I chose to volunteer with Catholic Community Services (CCS), an organization that works to help the poor and combat poverty. One of the services CCS offers is Volunteer Chore Services. This program is designed to help the elderly with chores both inside and outside of the house. The opportunity to interact with a different generation appealed to me. Every Friday, since the beginning of the quarter, I have been helping various elders  with whatever work they have for me for a few hours.

So far, I have enjoyed helping the elderly. Without volunteers helping them maintain the upkeep of their homes, some are eventually forced to move out. Others have such severe disabilities they are unable to complete the chores themselves. I like helping people even if I am only helping them out in a small way.

The best part of the experience is talking to the elders, as some don’t really have anyone to talk to. One Friday, I got the opportunity do just that with one of the women I help. She began telling me about her past life in Indonesia and how she immigrated to the United States at a young age. She seemed so content when she was talking about her past travels and memories. I was very intrigued by her stories and enjoyed hearing her recount past memories.

During class, we share our volunteering experiences and discuss how each student’s organization enhances service learning. By combining community service with instruction, students have the chance to reflect on volunteering experiences and think about the impact they are making in their communities. Once we understand this impact, we write essays that get us to critically think about our organizations. It’s not just volunteering, but understanding why we choose to volunteer and the motives behind our choices.

We’ve also engaged in debates on how some communities across the nation are using the term “volunteering” lightly. For example, we arrived at the conclusion that for many, volunteering has become a way to feel good about yourself, rather than deeply thinking about what it means to volunteer. Sure, you may have donated a dollar to help ease poverty in Haiti, but do you really know where that money went or anything about the organization you supported? We need to understand why we give our money to organizations, why we go to foreign countries and take pictures with children, why religious organizations go to various villages in underdeveloped countries, and why we as college students volunteer in the first place. Being an educated volunteer is what fosters social change. How can we change anything if we don’t even know what we are changing?

The common misconception is that anything constitutes social change. But oftentimes people engage in charity, not social change. Social change is not volunteering once every few months and thinking you’ve made an enormous impact. It is an ongoing process and does not happen overnight. Yes, you are helping, but your contribution will end once you stop volunteering. Although anyone can volunteer, it takes real commitment and an informed conscience. Even if you are helping only one person or doing something small, such as cleaning an elder’s home, everything counts as long as you have the right intentions in mind.

Ultimately, English 121 has been more than a composition class—it has widened my understanding of  service organizations and what it actually means to volunteer.  I’ve gotten to both help others and reflect on my own motivations and impact through class discussions and essays. Inspired by what I learned, I hope to start my own foundation that provides shelter, food, and schooling for kids who have no one else to turn to in the future.

For more information visit the UW Carlson Center at: http://depts.washington.edu/leader/

If thinking about signing up for English 121, check out the course website at: http://www.washington.edu/students/icd/S/engl/121littlem4.html

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