Cheng: Beyond Campus

How much time do Dartmouth students have for community involvement? ​

by Christopher Cheng | 11/9/17 1:00am

I’ve been getting these emails. They call for volunteers for construction projects for low-income families, applicants for social justice grants and mentors for children in the Upper Valley region. They tell stories about a world beyond Dartmouth College.

It’s easy to stay busy on campus. The bulk of my weekdays go to my three classes, lift and practice; I barely have enough time leftover for completing assignments and studying for midterms. When I look around, I see over 4,000 of my peers going through similar experiences. I unconsciously start to believe that my experience is the norm. After all, where’s the evidence to suggest that anyone is going through anything different?

I’ve been getting these e-mails. In Vox Daily, I see that nine first-year Geisel School of Medicine students were named Schweitzer Fellows this past May. Nationwide, the medical students who are enrolled in this fellowship engage with the social factors that impact health. Previous Geisel fellows have undertaken projects such as an investigation into local substance abuse recovery and a program supporting underserved, first-time mothers.

Wait a minute. Medical school is supposed to be intensely time-consuming. If these people can find time to take on projects beyond the daily grind of campus, then what am I doing with my time?

I suspect that maybe they are just superhuman — maybe they are exceptions to the rule. Yet a recent survey that was reported by Geisel’s admissions website reveals that 81 percent of the first- and second-year Geisel students who responded have been involved in at least one community service project during their time there, whether at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center or the surrounding Upper Valley. Many of these programs are also available to undergraduates.

By now, I get the idea. I start talking to some peers around campus; I consider the possibility that maybe nobody is actually responding to these emails. The peers I speak with are the same ones I see day after day, the same ones who I assumed were just as buried in work as I was. But after these conversations, I begin to run out of excuses.

Meeting with them after class, at the Class of 1953 Commons and anywhere in between, I learn that they’re all involved in a variety of service activities to varying degrees. Some of them are involved with activist groups on campus such as Movement Against Violence, Divest Dartmouth and the Sexual Violence Prevention Project. Others mentor children through programs such as SIBS and DREAM. Students interested in pre-med like to volunteer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. These individuals talk to me about juggling their demanding course loads and athletic schedules. Yet despite the stress placed on them, the thought of withdrawing from community involvement doesn’t even cross their minds.

Community involvement at Dartmouth is not only possible, it also enjoys incredible resources. The Residential Education Social Justice Award, which finished accepting applications for this year last week on Nov. 1, provides grants of up to $5,000 for projects. The Center for Service coordinates volunteer opportunities with programs such as America Reads, OLE and many others, including the Class of 1982 Upper Valley Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship, which provides a grant that covers one full-time leave term to implement an initiative serving under-resourced individuals in the Upper Valley region. The Center for Service also organizes and provides generous stipends to fund domestic and international internships at nonprofit organizations. It would be wasteful to not, at least, take a look.

Students and alumni speak extensively about the “Dartmouth bubble.” They refer in part to the phenomenon that I fell into — in my busy day-to-day life, I realized that I became unable to look beyond campus. Yet the use of the word “bubble” is misleading because this situation is in no danger of disappearing anytime soon. The challenges that Dartmouth students will face when engaging in community involvement are more like a fence: They are difficult, but not impossible, to overcome. And if Homecoming 2017 has shown us anything, it’s that Dartmouth students are all about hopping fences.

I’ve been getting these emails. Maybe it’s time to start responding to them.

Cheng is a member of the Sexual Violence Prevention Project.