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Which Community Should We Serve?

Opinion | December 7, 2009

rwanda

However beautiful the Medford campus may be, Tufts students cannot stay put. We are always striving to get away. Our campus is littered with signs advertising winter break, spring break and summer break trips abroad, offered by groups from the Institute for Global Learning to Tufts Hillel. We find every excuse to go abroad: community service, to learn a foreign language, research, leave our comfort zone, and of course, study. According to the Tufts website, almost half of our student population ventures outside the Boston area to study, for fear of restricting their brains to a mundane, American education. Those who remain in Medford for four years may already be abroad. The admissions website reports that, “of the 4,800 undergraduates, 8% are non-US citizens… nearly 15% of the students are foreign citizens, or US citizens who live overseas.”

And of course, we all know what the most popular major at Tufts is.

But why are we so obsessed with leaving the nest? What is the motivation behind abandoning our cozy perch between Medford and Somerville, where we have so many opportunities to study, grow, do community service, research, and get out of our comfort zone? What is wrong with staying put?

Whether or not half the student body chooses to go abroad for a segment of their studies may not have an enormous impact on the world. But one area of debate that is particularly poignant for a group of internationally minded students such as ourselves is the struggle to decide whether to conduct community service work here or abroad.

This year, I have had an intimate experience with this conflict. I was attracted to Tufts over other universities because of the international-mindedness and activism of the students. Though I have not decided to major in International Relations, I remain interested and involved with international-related activities. This summer, for instance, I traveled with a group of students from Tufts Hillel to Rwanda, to visit the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village for Rwandan orphans.

The essential purpose of this trip was to see the type of work that the Joint Distribution Committee was doing abroad and to contribute our own service to its creation. While there, we learned how the village started, befriended the students, and helped build stadium seating for the soccer field and decorate buildings with murals and mosaics. At the end of the trip, we wanted to keep helping the village and decided to collectively and individually raise funds. We have sent letters, made phone calls, and held local social gatherings. At Tufts we held the Race 4 Rwanda and the Rwanda Shabbat program. The people of the village and Rwandans living in Medford commended our services, We’re pretty proud of ourselves, too; it’s great to help contribute the education and livelihood of individuals who need it.

During this process, I have been learning about the educational problems in our own country. This semester I took Education for Peace and Justice, a course that illuminates the problems and potential solutions of the education system in the United States. The problems are not only upsetting, they are downright frightening. There is legitimate but unpublicized segregation in public schools, “diverse” institutions may be 99% black and Hispanic, while private schools are filled with the neighborhood’s white children. Many public schools are tragically underfunded, lacking the books and resources students need to learn. Current programs force underperforming students to do drills in preparation for national testing, rather than address demonstrated needs. The problems continue: from shootings and violence, to homeosexual intolerance, to lack of health education.

These problems are visible in schools as close as Dorchester. Why are we concerned with students living thousands of miles away? The debate is thus: with so many problems and such limited resources, should we help people in our own country, whose language and customs we can understand and whose needs are familiar to us, or should we help people in other countries whose basic needs may be more severely unattended? Who do we spend our valuable time and talent on? Who should we help?

Right now, many of us are engaged in some form of community service whether that be Tufts Timmy Fund or Peer Health Exchange. In the future, many of us may become doctors or teachers or donate to social service organizations. Not to brag, but by virtue of being accepted into a respected institution like Tufts, we are necessarily intelligent, able individuals who have the opportunity to contribute to the world. How do we apportion that ability?

In our Education for Peace and Justice class, where many of us want to pursue a career that directly relates to community service, this debate fell particularly close to home. We argue convincingly for one side or the other, sometimes for both. Ultimately, our conclusion is that each of us must think carefully about where our interests lie and whose needs we are best suited to meet. If we find our niche, surely we can maximize our potential and make an impact in the world.