Legends feature powerful superheroes, sword-wielding women, and epic showdowns. Catastrophes consume universes; heroes save worlds with a single flourish. As a child, I fancied myself a superhero, soaring the skies with dragon wings, battling demons with my favorite dagger, and repairing fallen cities. In short, I wanted to save the world.
As I grew older, I took any community service opportunity I could, recalling my earlier desires to battle injustice and solve the world’s problems. I rushed into the communities headlong, taking little time to notice the individuals involved. I spent time attacking issues, rather than listening carefully. I was blind to a fundamental truth: we can never fix everything.
At first, I despaired, frustrated by the lack of large-scale results. Then I realized: I’m not a superhero. I’m an almost-15-year-old girl with a Dell and a dream, and I like it that way. And yet, I still want to save the world.
When I came to Andover, the words “community engagement” mystified me. Why did we care so much about engaging with a community? And how was this word any different from the traditional “service”? I joined Coding Circle in my Junior fall, guided by my steady interest in computer science. However, what I took away from my meetings was so much more than a bit of coding. I saw the passion and open-hearted grace of the upperclassmen in the program. I witnessed the playful procrastination and intense focus in the children we taught.
As I continued to participate in Coding Circle and other community programs, I shifted my focus to relationship building. I realized that world-saving need not be loud: it happens in the quiet moments. It occurs when I make a connection with a little girl who doesn’t think that coding is for her, or when I guide the typing of a little boy who doesn’t have electricity at home.
I know I’m not a superhero. But that doesn’t mean I can’t save the world—there are so many ways to do it.
Community service has become a buzzword in college admissions and resume building. We count the hours, but we don’t measure the impact. I argue that maybe community “service” does more harm than good. It’s important to use our privilege to help others, yes, but we must also avoid dehumanization, misunderstanding, and ignorance.
Andover’s community engagement program explicitly validates the small interactions that define engagement, but we too often shift our emphasis. Resumes too often take the place of relationships. The phrase ‘community service’ implies pity and precludes understanding. When we pity, we seek to work for a community rather than with them. In contrast, the phrase “community engagement” entails relationship building and empathy. Pity may represent merely the impersonal concern which provokes platitudes, but empathy is the personal passion which prompts real progress.
It’s easy to lose yourself to the prospect of completely solving a community’s problems; it’s much more valuable to concentrate on understanding the problems, innovating alongside members of the community.
Change begins with people and true empathy. Change begins with relationships: a couple letters pressed on a keyboard, and the program runs on the screen. The little girl in front of the keyboard smiles, claps her hands. In that moment, a world is changed. And maybe that’s enough.
So, as you plunge into our last term this year, remember the outstanding value of community engagement. It’s hard to find the time and courage to interact with such honesty and vulnerability, but it may be the most important thing we learn here at Andover. Seek to understand and learn from those around you. Engage with your communities, rather than attempting to fix them. Build real relationships. In short, try to be your own kind of superhero.
See, that’s the kind of world-saving we do.
Gayatri Rajan is a Junior from Mason, OH. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.