Service or Self-Serving

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By: Olivia O’Brien

It is advertised on tours, on posters, and throughout campus; Tulane University is the #2 most engaged school in community service. We stand as the #1 school for producing Peace Corps volunteers, and one of the first schools to implement mandatory service learning. We promote Outreach Tulane, the one day a year (some) students make their way out into the City out of the goodness of their hearts. It is advertised that service, specifically service learning, is central to Tulane’s philosophy.

So, if all this is true, why does service learning feel so perfunctory? Moreover, who is really benefiting from our service?

Tulane has no mandatory preparation courses for service learning, often it’s not even discussed in class because the service learning component is usually optional. There is minimal opportunity for students to prepare and reflect on the service they’re doing, and what it means to be going out into the greater New Orleans community, assisting and educating oneself on the greater issue the service learning should address. For a school that prides itself on service and a committed student body, it seems contradictory that they have to be so strict on mandatory service learning. One would think that students would be more eager to get out into the city and complete service learning on their own accord. Yet, the majority of Tulane students treat their service learning requirement like a chore as opposed to an opportunity to educate themselves on larger, systemic issues.

Especially at Tulane, service learning is further complicated because Tulane is a majority white school in a city comprised mostly of people of color. Implementing service learning through the school not only causes students to perceive it as a burden, but it implies that the city needs our help. We see this same issue on a global scale, with the perpetuation of the white savior complex through service and mission trips to places that “need” white Americans’ help. Tulane’s mandatory service requirement can perpetuate an elitist agenda and is arguably paternalistic. It furthers the “us vs. them” narrative and gives students a platform to separate themselves from the problems that they are supposed to be addressing during service learning.

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About two months ago, I had a Lyft driver who described Tulane as “little Connecticut,” a mainly white, wealthy, and privileged spot within the greater New Orleans area. The majority of students venture out into the city only when Apple Sigma Pi has a social (at a venue only open to Tulane students). Mardi Gras in New Orleans is globally renowned as a wild experience, a necessary bucket list item, yet I found myself on campus at various fraternities the majority of the time. Tulane students don’t interact with New Orleans to begin with, so why would this culture change when it comes to service learning?

The rhetoric of Tulane’s service learning program is centered around the students’ perspectives --  it is ‘impressive’ that Tulane has it as a requirement because it is so enriching to students’ academic studies. While it does add another level to the students' experiences, the more important- yet less talked about- aspect is the deeper rooted problems. Service learning, ideally, is targeted at reversing some of the problems that stem from institutional racism and socioeconomic stratification. These same systemic issues that we are supposed to be addressing through service learning, work in my favor, along with the majority of Tulane students. Service learning focuses on everything from erroneous incarceration systems to the language barrier so many Latin American immigrants face when coming to New Orleans public schools. These cyclic socio-economic issues are what students should be starting to understand through their service learning.

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I’m not arguing that service learning as a concept is bad, but at Tulane it is executed poorly. As Tulane students, we need to educate and prepare ourselves when going to face the legitimate, institutional problems service learning works to address. We need to change the narrative that (a.) makes service seem like it occurs in a vacuum and (b.) is centered around our help. On the Tulane administration’s part, if they plan to brag about their service statistics as much as they do, the least they could do is have a mandatory preparation course that discusses how to combat problems through service learning and addressing the problems within service learning.

The administration and students alike should stop treating service learning as something to check off the list. Similarly to how having liberal stickers and propaganda on your computer, retweeting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and taking snapchats of the Women's March foster feelings of activism and satisfaction, completing mandatory service learning twice through college can either inspire or hinder peoples’ service and involvement in the future. Maybe the entire concept of “service learning” should evolve into “community engagement”. Let’s make it a two way interaction. Let service learning be the first step into learning more about New Orleans and the challenges the city faces systemically and post-Katrina, as opposed to patting yourself on the back for your (required) “help.”