March 28, 2020

Youthful altruism on the rise

Anyone who’s hungry for a bit of good news might have found a nourishing morsel to chew on in a brief article in Monday’s paper about the rate of volunteerism among young people.

According to The Associated Press, a new study shows that college students nationwide are volunteering in their communities at a rate that has been growing sharply over the last few years. Their ranks rose more than 20 percent, from 2.7 million to 3.3 million, between 2002 and 2005. The Corporation for National & Community Service study found, in fact, that the growth rate for college students is more than double that for all other volunteers.

The “historically significant surge,” the organization’s chairman concluded enthusiastically, may be the “most remarkable increase since the ‘Greatest Generation’ of World War II.”

Although the story didn’t offer an explanation for this hopeful trend, it would be encouraging to think that the way their baby boomer parents raised them may have had something to do with the sudden spike in altruism and community-mindedness among the nation’s young people. But there may be another force at work, too, one that might seem unlikely at first glance. Think of it as an upside of our increasingly competitive college application process.

I got this idea from a column in USA Today that I clipped and saved a while back. It was written by Kathy Seal, the co-author of “Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning.” In her column, Seal laments the fact that high school students appear to be getting more involved than ever in community service projects merely to “look good for college.” Many of these kids, Seal points out, are visiting nursing homes and tutoring disadvantaged children “not out of basic human kindness, but out of self-interest” – namely, their desire to get into the best colleges on their lengthy application lists.

“Rather than fostering their altruism,” Seal writes, “we’re teaching our kids that goodness isn’t its own reward, but that good deeds call for a material prize – a slot in a brand-name college.”

While she may be correct about what’s prompting this outpouring of good will among ambitious high schoolers, it doesn’t explain why so many kids who are already in college, and presumably no longer need to impress an admissions committee, are choosing to continue volunteer work in such extraordinarily large numbers.

The answer may lie in the simple fact that the activities they felt compelled to pursue as 17-year-olds in an effort to “look good for college” eventually may have led them to become 20-year-olds who understand just how valuable their volunteer efforts really are to the people who benefit from them the most.

Frankly, I don’t much care whether a youngster’s motivation for getting involved in the first place is to fulfill a public-service high school requirement or pad a college application, as long as they’re being exposed to what volunteerism is all about. Besides, it’s the next step in the learning curve that matters most.

And the promising increase in college-age volunteers seems to suggest that they’re discovering for themselves – during the hours they spend at a local soup kitchen, working with needy youngsters or in helping to winterize the homes of their low-income elderly neighbors – the satisfying essence of what it means to be of service to others and that goodness is indeed its own reward after all.

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