Students at Saint Louis University find many ways to serve their community, from weekly or even daily commitments to the St. Louis community, to service trips that take students across the country or across national borders. There are also events, such as Make a Difference Day, Showers of Service, Dance Marathon and SLU Relay for Life, that work to better the community. Although all of these events do good work in their own way, they may not necessarily be considered service. Each requires hours of planning behind the scenes, but for most SLU students who partake in these activities, they are largely one-day commitments.
For service, commitment is important. Service should come in the form of continual dedication to the community one is serving. The completion of a task or project in a few hours, while potentially beneficial, isn’t exactly service. One may volunteer to complete a task or project, but matters of great importance require the dedication of one’s efforts over time.
Unlike other ways of contributing to causes, however, service may not always leave students satisfied at the end of the day. Service is difficult and at times exhausting. It challenges students and takes them out of their comfort zone. One serves others not to feel good about themselves nor to justify their place in this world, but to support the place of those around them. Ideally, people should serve out of a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others.
Because, in the case of service, students often don’t view the fruits of their labor, some individuals may be less inclined to contribute in this way. This makes understanding what constitutes service more important. It is only after long-term commitment to a cause that those who serve will create change. As SLU students, we shouldn’t view our service to the community as something that will bring us immediate satisfaction; no problem is solved in a day. We should understand that change comes from a multitude of efforts and that we as individuals cannot be saviors.
Tasks and projects condense the struggle too vastly. Service cannot fix communities or solve problems quickly. It requires consistent and active efforts, not only once-a-year contributions.
Other forms of contributing must be distinguished from service. For example, service and philanthropy should not be confused. With that said, neither are fundamentally more important than the other. Philanthropy, which typically involves donating money to a cause that promotes human welfare, supports the activities of many groups that serve communities. Many groups would not be able to do great work without private donations.
It is also important to note that not everyone may be best suited for service. Some people may lack the time to make a weekly commitment, and others may feel that they lack the necessary skills. Donations can help provide funding for those best equipped to help others, such as social workers, teachers or doctors. In some cases, the efforts of individuals may even end up exploiting the communities they want to help. Service trips that bring U.S. citizens abroad often take away resources from marginalized populations and risk the development of a savior complex in the process, as they may leave with the belief that their actions radically shaped the lives of others. In situations like these, contributing money from afar could very well be the best way to help, as the money can then be used by those in the community to benefit others in that community.
Donating money can be helpful, but donating itself does not constitute service and may lead to the false belief that, by giving money, they have done enough. We fear that some charitable causes may inadvertently discourage SLU students from serving the St. Louis community in other ways by focusing students’ efforts solely on raising money. There is great need in the St. Louis community, and we, as students, must do better to serve that community, despite the fact that it is not easy.
SLU students contribute many hours each year to community service and to raising money for worthy causes, but there is always more that we can do. We must build relationships with our St. Louis community and fully embrace our place as a part of this city, even as we learn and better ourselves on campus.