Be more in your community

August Wade
Staff Columnist

Illustration by Annette Allen

Where we learn and where we are educated are not always the same place. The summation of my time at VCU could be depicted with a classroom filled only with desks and a few closed books, with a plethora of open books, rushing verbs just outside the door.

That’s not to say the education provided here at VCU through classrooms has been ineffective, but rather that the value of my experience here has been measured outside the immediate opportunity VCU has presented to me. That’s the way education works for some people: You can lead the horse to water, but they might drink at a different point in the stream.

To that end, I’ve been continually disheartened by the lack of education VCU students have received. The reality of the world immediately around them still eludes us. Real-world concepts actively at work in Richmond like income inequality, race, gentrification and homelessness, to name a few, still befuddle us. Full of knowledge and degree in hand, we know little about life, what it means to be in a community.

But it’s not our fault.

I don’t exclusively blame people, particularly students, for their myopia; we’re born into a system that encourages us, despite all declarations to the contrary, to just be good enough and never rise above what has been prescribed or described to us in systematic structure and innateness, while simultaneously being discouraged verbally. There’s only a soft push for students to continue whatever community volunteering they started in high school into college.

We were born into an unfair system. While we can sometimes overcome it, personal achievements and isolated success alone cannot alter the current of societal complacency. From our résumés on, we are made to conform to business, not humanity. Faces become numbers and community becomes management. Applications and scholarships want us to set ourselves apart from the rest of the “pack.”

Following on the heels of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day of Service and VCU’s own MLK Week Celebration, it’s important to remember that volunteering and engaging in civic action shouldn’t be a sporadic event, but a continual engagement. We are creatures of community. We need to be visible within that community, be it here within the city limits, in the suburbs or wherever we go in life after our time here.

For its part, the university administration provides an encouraging amount of resources and information about volunteering, including the ASPiRE program. While we all should take advantage of those opportunities and resources, we should also examine whether more can be done. Should the administration, and indeed all of us, go beyond the standard of “optional” and challenge ourselves to make community service compulsory, particularly for students in programs that don’t directly deal with civic issues? Doubtless, it can conflict with ensuring a quick and timely graduation schedule, but the benefits, including networking opportunities and skill creation, outweigh the concerns of time. Furthermore, it’s not inconceivable for the university to reimburse students for their time.

By investing in the present, the station currently being attended to, we better comprehend the importance of being a presence, giving back to the in-place and using that contribution to better ourselves as people. It allows us an intangible ownership over the pricelessness of experience and personal growth.

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