Community Service Should Be Required for All Students

Anjali Kolachalam, Contributing Writer

For a while now, I’ve been wondering what happened to “labor.” It’s part of our motto, “Learning and Labor,” but not really part of our day-to-day lives as students. Yes, labor in the time of the College’s founding meant working at the College in lieu of tuition, which isn’t really feasible today. However, we need to start modernizing the principle to push ourselves and the College in a new direction. In other words, I strongly believe that there should be a community service requirement.

We are encouraged to study fields all over the academic spectrum, from natural science to Comparative American Studies. Yet, with the exception of Day of Service, Interfaith Day of Service, and the Bonner Center of Service and Learning, there is no institutional push for most students to be involved in the community. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t amazing students activists and student organizations making the community better. But all Oberlin students, we’re told, are passionate about making the world a better place. We should put our money where our mouths are by improving the Oberlin community around us.

One of the most compelling reasons that service should be considered an essential part of undergraduate education is the benefit it has for personal well-being. According to Alexander Astin and Linda Sax’s research done at 42 undergraduate institutions, published in The Lancet, community service improved academic standing, life skills and sense of civic engagement. In other words, working with the community can make nearly every aspect of life at Oberlin better. These programs can help students with leadership skills and can help make this campus feel less lonely and isolating.

I understand the risks of having an uninterested party working for something just to get the requirement out of the way, yet there are few Oberlin students who don’t care about improving the world around them. I’m not saying apathetic people don’t exist, but I am saying that maybe those are the people who would benefit most from the requirement. Maybe they would learn to love giving back.

A large part of making this work will be a shift in campus culture, a shift where we as a group spend less time thinking about our problems within the Oberlin bubble and think more about the issues outside of it. We need to make this not just a personal commitment, but an institutional commitment. It is not enough to say that these are important issues that need to be solved; the College and the students need to start finding the common ground to do it.

In the Strategic Plan, there is a call to “further develop opportunities for students to be involved in

civic engagement in Oberlin, Lorain County and greater northeast Ohio.” If the institution is serious about developing more civic engagement, then having a requirement would be in line with these priorities. I realize not many of our “peer institutions” have these types of requirements, but Oberlin often brags about breaking new ground.

There is so much good work that needs to be done and we have so many students with the skill sets to do it. I know that students are busy enough already and I know that classes can be hard and time-consuming. But adding an hour a week to your schedule to do something that helps other people is completely attainable, especially when it can do so much good for students overall. Having a service requirement would be good for students, fulfill an institutional priority and create a positive shift in campus culture.