Service should be more than self-serving

Natalie San Luis

In 2011, I was invited to join Orange Jackets, one of UT’s most prestigious women’s service organizations. Later, I learned that my membership was contingent on my ability to pay several hundred dollars in dues over the next two years. I knew service required sacrifice, but that year I forked over more cash in the name of volunteerism than I did for textbooks. This was particularly troubling considering that some of our “service to the University” consisted of distributing nametags to guests of President Powers’ pregame get-togethers.

Eventually I found that the majority of the budget was dedicated to special events for members: socials, catered initiation and induction ceremonies, tailgates. When I tried to initiate democratic budget reforms, I was met with silence. I revoked my membership in the organization, but had I stayed, I would have been kicked out anyway because I couldn’t pay up.

My situation is not unique. Most students in service organizations pay dues that go to printing T-shirts or a winter formal fund. But I consider service to be a method of creating change. Communities are not underserved or underprivileged by coincidence, but rather by dominant ideologies that rely on that hierarchy. For me, service that doesn’t include some sort of re-examination of privilege is disconcerting.

Without question, any service organizations and service-oriented individuals, including those in Orange Jackets, do incredible work in our community. For example, Taylor Mauze is the logistics chair of Project 2013, UT’s annual day of service, and has been communicating with individuals in underserved areas of the Austin community all year to coordinate service projects. “Every year, we do what the community requests of us,” Mauze said. “We’ll do anything that is requested that is within our power to do.”

However, such a passion for community is not always present in calls to serve. The discussions about community service frequently revolve around the advantages for individual doing it: Volunteering is a great experience. Volunteering looks great on a scholarship application. Volunteering is so rewarding.

But if we walk away from soup kitchens, park cleanups and clothing drives with a renewed sense of satisfaction with our culture, our lifestyles and ourselves, we are doing a disservice to our communities. 

In America, self-absorption is not only tolerated — it’s glorified. That mindset isn’t cured by community service; it bleeds over onto it. Disadvantaged communities can certainly benefit from a Saturday afternoon of service. But too often it is used as an excuse to avoid examining one’s own privilege.

I don’t intend to dissuade anyone from serving their communities. Rather, I encourage students to serve thoughtfully. If you raise money to help a cancer patient pay for treatment, think about why access to health care is denied to some. If you clean up a park in an East Austin neighborhood, ask yourself why West Campus looks better than Dove Springs.

Too often, community service events or organizations are considered ends in themselves. And when that service falls under criticism — when those who serve are forced to question their own advantages — the inherent contradiction within the idea of self-serving service arises.

This Saturday, over 2,000 students will gather at various locations throughout Austin for the University’s largest day of service, Project 2013. I hope they approach the event with Mauze’s mindset: “Serving reminds you of what a privilege it is to be here and all the opportunities that we have access to. It’s much easier to reflect on those if you get outside the insular community of UT.”

 San Luis is a Plan II, English and women’s and gender studies senior from Buda.