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The Citizen

I don’t volunteer

By Anne Stotler, MPP ’15  

Searching for the balance between learning to serve and doing it

“You and your sister thought I was a bad mother sometimes,” my mother recently joked about how much time she spent volunteering when I was growing up. “You were always the last kids picked up at school because I was off at some volunteer commitment.”

I did often complain about the seemingly endless hours I spent sitting on the curb, waiting for my mom to pick me up. But I never questioned her decision to spend this time volunteering. My parents’ example taught me that volunteering is a way to give back to my community – and to get to know the people in it. They showed me that volunteering is thoughtful and compassionate, but also fun and gratifying.

Like my mom, I have been volunteering my whole life. When I was younger, I collected cans for food drives and helped my dad sell Christmas trees to raise money for the YMCA. In high school, I started volunteering at a camp for people with disabilities. Eight years later, I still spend a week there each summer.

By the time I graduated from college, I wanted service to be more than a hobby. I aimed to focus my career on public service.

When the Kennedy School offered me a scholarship that required a three-year commitment to public service after graduation, I did not hesitate for a second to sign that pledge. After all, I came to the Kennedy School because I was already committed to a career in public service.

Despite this commitment, I have dedicated very little time to serving the public while a student at HKS.

The Kennedy School claims to be “committed to both thought and action” and advertises itself as a place where students “think deeply and broadly about public service.” So why do I seem to be missing the “action”?

Last spring, a friend and I had a conversation about our desire to dedicate more time to service. We signed up to spend the HKS Day of Service at a Boston homeless shelter. After a tour of the shelter, we began our task: sorting clothing donations. The staff gave us very limited instructions, and we spent most of the time confused about what we were supposed to be doing. In the end, it wasn’t clear whether we’d done anything helpful, or if we’d just distracted the staff from their work.

This experience seemed to confirm all the arguments I’ve heard against volunteering. Our service offered no solution to the entrenched problems of homelessness, societal stigma, and substance abuse that challenge the shelter’s residents. We made no long-term investment in addressing these issues or getting to know the people we hoped to help.

I chose to attend the Kennedy School because I want to make that long-term investment.

At HKS, I am learning from leading practitioners in my field, alongside peers who are as dedicated to service as I am. I am acquiring skills and knowledge that will help me become a more effective public servant. I’m learning how to address public problems in all their complexity.

The Kennedy School provides me a space to think critically about whether my past service was the most impactful and respectful way to help underserved communities.

Of course, I could participate in a more meaningful, long-term volunteering opportunity than the Day of Service. But no part-time volunteering opportunity has the same impact that I could have as a full-time, Harvard-trained public servant – or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Other than HKS Serves, I have chosen not to volunteer during my time at HKS. Instead, I have taken the wide-angle view so that I can be a more effective public servant later. I made a substantial financial and personal investment to be at the Kennedy School, and I need to take advantage of every opportunity I have to make that investment worthwhile.

I do worry that this decision is not as pragmatic and forward thinking as I tell myself it is. I worry that I’ve chosen a selfish cop-out, a way to rationalize my decision that with so many exciting opportunities at my fingertips, service just isn’t a priority for me right now. I worry that I am trapped in the “ivory tower,” out of touch with the community around me.

Thinking critically is crucial to being an effective and thoughtful public servant. But so is understanding the communities that I aim to serve.

If I find an opportunity to engage in public service while at HKS in a way that builds on what I’m learning in the classroom and doesn’t resort to “token” service just to dampen my fears of the ivory tower, I’ll do it.

In the meantime, I will fully immerse myself in the opportunities I do have at the Kennedy School: to critique and expand my understanding of service, and to deeply consider the path I will take in public service.

Only by doing this can I achieve my goal of becoming an even stronger public servant after I graduate in May.