“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”- Mahatma Gandhi
I’m absolutely thrilled that ARCSmart has received the Archaeological Institute of America’s Society Outreach Grant. I am personally involved with the program as a coordinator and volunteer, and while getting up on Friday mornings is sometimes hard, it’s totally worth the payoff. I know this program is working, not only for the students themselves, but also for me.
I think one of the most underrated aspects of volunteering is what the volunteer reaps from the experience. I don’t mean a sense of self-worth from vanity projects or generating personal good karma, I mean actually taking a good hard look at the human experience in the microcosm of schools. For example, during the Fall semester, I volunteered at a school deep in south Los Angeles. I have a lot of awesome memories from that school. The particular day of the week that I volunteered for was always before my Japanese class, so between rotations I would carry around my kanji flashcards or be furiously scribbling characters to finish my homework. A few saw this, and suddenly I was writing everyone’s names down in Japanese so they could display them on their binders. The word spread to the next class during recess, and I had kids asking for their names in Japanese again. Some chatted me up about my interest in anime, manga, and my excavation experience in China. I had to miss a day to do something, and upon my return the next week I had kids frowning at me saying I am not allowed to miss another day because they missed me. The unconditional love of students for being nothing but what they consider “cool” (heaven knows I am not, nor have ever been, cool by the standards of my peers) is awesome.
It was the last session with this school that really touched me the most. We played a game of archaeology Jeopardy, and the kids got prizes, and all was well and good. Usually at the end of the last session, we open up the floor to the whole class to ask us anything about archaeology, college, growing up, whatever. Standard questions include, “What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever found?” and “When did you decide you wanted to be an archaeologist?”. All fun things.
Beyond that, we start to get questions about college life in general. Do I get to sleep in a lot? Do I live with my boyfriend? Do I get to stay out late? Is it true that USC has a lot of parties? Is college hard? These are all really cool to answer because I can see their eyes widen when I tell them that I can eat whatever I want, and that I can more or less do whatever I want as long as I keep my grades up. To them, college is the enticing reward at the end of all the arithmetic, cursive and geography they endure.
The questions that make me uncomfortable are ones involving cost. Is it true that USC is incredibly expensive? How do you afford to go to college? I don’t want to discourage them from bothering to even try to go to USC, or any university for that matter. I take this opportunity to tell them about USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which works to prepare students in the USC neighborhood for university and beyond by providing academic support for committed students and full financial packages to USC. This last session, however, raised some worrying questions in general. These students are very aware of the California state financial crisis, that their education funding is being hacked left and right, and that their resources are limited. Small voices throughout the room murmured that they would never be able to go to college because their families could not afford it. This was especially heart-wrenching after spending five weeks getting to know them, knowing that they are incredibly bright and creative, and knowing that they deserve every bit of support getting into college that I did.
While I was carrying our materials back to my car, two young girls walked next to me. Both of them were told me that they would never be able to go to college. I misunderstood them, thinking they meant to continue the financial conversation from before. I told them that there will be a way to make it happen. I hate to sugar coat things for anyone and any reason, but I felt I had to mask my own feelings on the matter so they would not despair. In fact, they did not mean to continue the financial conversation– they said they would never be able to go to college because they were not American citizens, are scared of applying for federal funding because their families are all under the radar, and that without funding, they would never be able to go to college. This is all in light of the current events in the US with the immigration issues. I was left speechless. I mean, I really don’t know what to tell these kids. I felt awful, answer-less, and sad getting back in my car and driving back to my ivory tower institution.
ARCSmart getting this grant means a lot to me in that we can continue helping kids. Unexpectedly, this grant also means that we can keep helping ourselves. Most students I know at USC have done some sort of community service– whether that’s working with the Joint Educational Project teaching math and English, reaching out to the homeless, or simply donating blood is up to the student themselves. This grant has ensured that we’ll be able to keep educating kids, and in the end, educating ourselves and giving ourselves a holistic education beyond books and research and into interactions with real people, real issues and the reality of a world that I don’t think many USC students ever grew up knowing about, let alone immersed in.