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  • Nancy Fries

Where passion meets purpose: Service with a smile, and a heart

Updated: Apr 30, 2018


This sentiment, written by a friend's young daughter, should ideally be at the heart of community service.

On a recent Saturday morning run, my friend and I came upon three high school students who had set up a refreshment table. They were handing out Gatorade and snacks to members of a charitable organization who were training for a race. Although we weren’t part of that group, the students insisted that we help ourselves and refused to take any money. These were three charming young women who I’m going to bet could think of other ways to spend a Saturday morning (such as sleeping), yet there they were. As we gratefully drank the Gatorade, a man rode up on a bike and asked the students if they were doing this to look good on their college applications. I kid you not. Have we become that cynical?


Most high schools require a minimum number of community service hours prior to graduation. No such thing existed when I was a student, and I do remember being surprised when I first learned about it years ago from our babysitter, “Bridget,” who was in high school at the time. Bridget was a volunteer counselor at a nature camp my older son, then around 5, was attending. “Are you enjoying it?” I asked her. “It’s a great way to get my community service hours,” she replied. Perplexed, I asked another way. “Is it fun working at the camp?” “I’m getting all my hours in two weeks,” she said.


The message was sad but clear: She was at the camp primarily as a quick and easy way to earn her hours. Any positive impact she might have had on the children was secondary. I have no doubt plenty of students log their hours in equally efficient and unheartfelt ways. But I also have no doubt that colleges can tell the difference between checking the service box and investing yourself in something that truly matters to you and, even more importantly, to others. So if Bridget worked at the nature center those two weeks and never again throughout her high school career did anything that showed she cared about kids or nature, her stint ended up doing precious little to help her application.


Fast forward about 10 years, and my own little camper became a volunteer counselor at the same nature center. I’m using this example not because my son is a stellar example of a giving, caring individual. He’s not that into community service. He’s also not that into kids. But he does love nature and all things scientific, and cares deeply about the environment. So when his college application showed two summers as a nature camp counselor, plus an assortment of other nature-y and science-y things, it was clear that nature camp wasn’t a one-off used solely to meet the service requirement and boost his resume. It was a way he could use his skills and interests for some greater good. He found the intersection of his passions and his purpose.


Where do your passions and your purpose intersect? That’s a question I believe all students should ask themselves as they decide how to fulfill their service requirement. Into computers? Help at a coding camp. Aspiring veterinarian? Head to the local animal shelter. Got a green thumb? An urban farm can use your help. Whatever your interests, try to find a way to parlay them into something that benefits your community. In fact, there’s an app called Golden that’s designed specifically to connect people with organizations that can use their help. Golden was created by Sage Hill School and Stanford University alumnus Sam Fankuchen, who I had the great pleasure of interviewing as part of the work I do for Sage Hill. Community service, Sam said, “is not something you do four Saturdays a year so your college resume looks better. This is something you do because it’s who you are and it’s your legacy in the world. It’s connecting you to a place you get to discover a deeper version of yourself and your passions and the world around you.”


That may sound a bit idealistic, but I’ve truly seen this happen. I worked with a student this year who created one of the most impressive yet heartfelt service activities I’ve seen. It’s abundantly clear, this isn’t something she did for the hours. She goes to a private boarding school attended by many international students, especially from West Africa. When she learned that many of her classmates faced difficulty acclimating to American high school life, she took action. “Fifteen percent of our students are international and we should be embracing them with love when they arrive, not leaving them lost and alone,” she wrote in her essay. So she took it upon herself to create a mentorship program at her school, to help these students acclimate. And she set it up to continue for years to come, leaving a legacy long after she graduates. You can’t fake that kind of caring. Yes, she was admitted to her first choice college, but that wasn't the motivation behind the program.


Not everyone has a great idea like that or the wherewithal to implement it, but I’ve seen plenty of student essays reflecting the realization of the positive impact they can have on others. Like the student who helps senior citizens with iPhones and computers, connecting them to others at a time that might otherwise be increasingly isolating. Or the student who makes dinners for the homeless, not every now and then, but each and every month. The student who took multiple trips to an orphanage in Mexico, long after exceeding her service requirement by hundreds of hours. In the course of checking the box, many students do find that sweet spot where passion meets purpose, or at the very least a way to make someone else feel special. At the end of the day, how it looks on the college application isn’t the point.