We continue to feature our top ten submissions in Senior Orations. Today we hear the thoughts of Meredith Browne.
Service Done Right
While attending a meeting to prepare for the Volunteer Service Corps trip to Kolkata, India, we discussed our own personal philosophy of service. I was surprised to find out how greatly everyone’s ideas differed. This led me to more deeply consider what service to others is, since it seems to be so subjective. What does it mean to go to a university whose motto is, “Pro Humanitate?” Is there a right kind of service? Why do we travel thousands of miles to help others when Winston-Salem has some of the hungriest children in the nation?
Serving others has always been an important aspect of my life. From middle school on, I was required to do a certain amount of service for the organizations to which I belonged. This is not to say that I did not understand the value of helping others, but it was always mandatory. When I came to Wake, however, no one was telling me I had to volunteer. Instead, I became aware of the importance of Pro Humanitate to our school, and was overwhelmed with all the activities on campus that fulfilled this motto. Although I understood the importance of Pro Humanitate, I did not reflect on why this was our motto. Perhaps to go to Wake Forest is it not only a call to do all one can for humanity, but it should also be a call to question why we serve.
The simple definition of service is an exchange involving two parties: those who are offering their time or goods and those who are receiving them. This broad definition leaves room for interpretation and frankly, recklessness and self-satisfaction. Although most service is initiated with good intentions, good intentions can soon be lost by a lack of empathy for those being served and a lack of preparation for the work being done. I experienced this important difference when I traveled to Nicaragua with Wake Forest this past summer to learn about global health and communication. We prepared for our trip for on campus before travelling to Nicaragua for three weeks of service learning. Before going, we learned of the history and culture of Nicaragua and about about AMOS, the organization with which we would be working. AMOS improves the health of impoverished communities by working alongside the community. One important distinction of this organization is that the community must first come to AMOS asking for assistance. To me, this is an example of “service done right.” There is a need in these communities yet there is no sense of superiority from AMOS because they have the resources to help.
When flying into Nicaragua, I was struck by all the volunteer organizations in the airport. I spotted one group of young volunteers wearing matching shirts that said, “Save Nicaragua!” I shudder to think about the friends I made there and what they would think if they saw those shirts. Whether it refers to a religious or economic “saving,” this phrase implies the rescue of an entire “lost” nation, not a partnership with individuals, which is so essential to service. I reflect on my friend, 60-year-old Gerarito, who guided me to different houses in his community so we could check on the efficiency of their water filters. The pride he had in his farming community was evident as he led me from house to house. I think he, and the rest of the people I encountered there, would agree with Lilla Watson, an Australian activist, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Yes, service is about giving help but it is also more than that; serving is about the liberation of both parties. Perhaps some Nicaraguans need to be liberated from poverty and a lack of health care, but from what do we as North Americans need to be liberated? Maybe we as traveling volunteers need to be freed from our own preconceived notions about the world around us.
While preparing for my trips to Nicaragua and to India, I was bothered by the fact that the cost of my plane ticket could feed hungry children in Winston-Salem. I asked myself, “Am I even going to really help anyone, or is this just a selfish fulfillment of my own desire to travel?” The answer to this question is neither simple nor easy. Yes, international service may partially be a selfish desire to see the world. But more importantly, it is a way for us as members of the Wake Forest family to demonstrate that we care for the welfare of those in other countries as well as those at home. It is vital for us to see the world and to serve it, and then to come home as more empathetic individuals and continue to help those here.
International service must be coupled with thoughtful preparation and reflection upon our motives. The reasons we as individuals decide to serve others either locally or internationally, are personal and complex. Some say service is an attempt at self-gratification. I think, however, the answer may be quite simple and innate in many of us. Essentially, we participate in service because we are created to love our fellow humans. At our best, we want the best for each other. We may serve differently with our individual gifts, but if what we have to give is not done with sensitivity and love, it can be worthless and even harmful. Thank you, Wake Forest, for not only giving me so many opportunities to serve, but for guiding me to think critically about the meaning of service.