Community Service, in College and Beyond

By Abby Mccartney

Lauren, from Frostburg State University, explains how she gives back while she's in college.


Caitlin Conley, from Tulane University, demonstrates her community involvement at Tulane and the activism around the New Orleans area.

When it comes to activism and community involvement Tulane reflects a larger New Orleans dichotomy. New Orleans is the home to Mardi Gras, the largest party in America, and Bourbon Street, perhaps the single most indulgent street in the country. At the same time the city is the center of the largest recovery effort in United States history and is full of community development and service activities. Some Tulane students find it easy to revel in the French Quarter and the leafy confines of the Uptown New Orleans area and others have founded highly effective community service projects. Most students fall somewhere in the middle.

The Tulane Green Club, a student group dedicated to educating students about environmental issues, has seen both ends of the Tulane spectrum.

“It's getting easier to get students involved,” said Green Club president Mara Saxer, “but Tulane still isn't a hotbed of activism.”

Saxer felt that Tulane students were “starting to wake up to environmentalism”. She found that her fellow students were generally educated about global warming and other environmentalist issues but were often uninterested in debate or discussion.

“Tulane students are certainly aware of the issues,” she said, “but there is no discussion about activism on campus.” She attributed a portion of this to “the Tulane bubble”.

The Tulane bubble reflects that it's quite possible to take the streetcar back and forth to the French Quarter, jog in Audubon Park, live on campus and never see the rest of New Orleans and it is true that some Tulane students fit this mold. But many other students, especially in Hurricane Katrina's wake, find themselves increasingly involved in the New Orleans recovery effort and it appears that the Tulane bubble is shrinking.

Economics professor Mary Olson felt that the Tulane bubble was largely a myth.

“My students are highly engaged,” she said. “They are aware that others don't have the same advantages they have and they realize that it's not all about them.”

Olson also felt that the Tulane bubble might reflect the idea that Tulane students aren't usually focused on a single effort.

“Tulane students try to be well rounded and know a little bit about everything so perhaps the bubble reflects the idea that they don't usually focus intensely on once specific endeavor,” she said.

Saxer agreed. She said that it was easy for students to get stuck in their own world but felt that most students were educated and could talk intelligently about a variety of issues besides alcohol, partying and the frat scene. Although the Green Club sometimes had trouble attracting students she pointed out that CACTUS, Tulane's community service organization, had substantial support.

Although activism is not popular on campus Tulane could be classified as a community service hotbed.

“CACTUS is probably the biggest student group on campus,” Saxer said.

CACTUS's fall semester day of service, Outreach Tulane, placed more than 1,000 Tulane students in projects across the city and CACTUS sponsors more than 20 different community service initiatives. Even students living firmly within the Tulane bubble will find it hard to ignore Tulane's focus on community service because all students are required to complete at least two service learning classes before they graduate.

All of these conflicting ideas reflect Tulane's reputation as a work hard-party hard school. Students aren't limited to the New Orleans nightlife and the local bar scene. They can still have an intelligent discussion about the presidential election and are passionately interested in rebuilding New Orleans. Tulane is not all about drinking and partying and it is not all about activism and community service. Instead, Tulane offers prospective students a unique combination of both.

Teach for America provides students the next step of service, with an opportunity to teach after they graduate.  Tamara Urquhart, a member of TFA's Recruitment Team, illustrates her decision to join Teach For America and what it means to the community she works in.

In America today, 9-year-olds in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in more affluent communities. Half of them won’t graduate from high school. Those who do graduate will read and do math, on average, at the level of eighth graders in high-income communities. I saw the stark reality of educational inequity every day as a fifth grade teacher at Tull Waters Elementary School in Atlanta. My students started the school year five years behind grade level. Most struggled to sound out simple words and had to count on their fingers to do basic math. During a lesson on the Civil War, none were able to tell me in which country they lived.

My students weren’t behind because they were incapable of learning. They had been failed by a system of low expectations and ineffective instruction that allowed them to move to the next grade without the basic skills to succeed in school and in life. By the end of the year, my class made an average of 2.8 years of academic growth in reading and math, a massive learning achievement but not yet where they needed to be.

I came to Tull Waters as a first-year teacher with Teach For America, the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in expanding educational opportunity. As a senior majoring in Economics and Government at Cornell, I planned to take a lucrative job in consulting until a conversation with a Teach For America recruiter opened my eyes to the impact I could have as a Teach For America corps member in a low-income community like the communities I saw growing up in inner-city Philadelphia. Traveling to school every morning, I rode the bus to my magnet high school with a giant backpack stuffed with books alongside students attending the neighborhood school who traveled with only a pen in their pockets. Our communities suffered from chronic low expectations for its children; many of my neighbors hadn’t been given the opportunities that allowed them to believe that attendance at a four-year college was a realistic goal for kids from West Oak Lane.

I was moved to become a teacher by the injustice I saw as a student, but teaching in a low-income community gave me a much deeper perspective on the potential of every student to achieve at the highest levels and the intense need for more dedicated, effective teachers. Devon entered my classroom 13 years old and a beginning reader. He was the class bully and many teachers labeled him a lost cause. I recognized that his success would be key to a positive classroom dynamic and I threw everything I had into working with Devon and his mother to get him up to speed. After numerous home visits and hours of tutoring after school, Devon finished the year reading at a third grade level, excited to build on his success in the next year.

Devon moved on to sixth grade at the local middle school in the fall where a failing school brought his academic gains to a halt yet again. Devon’s experience made it clear to me that every student needs and deserves effective teachers year after year. That’s why I chose to join Teach For America’s staff. I hope to continue to impact low-income communities of color across the country by increasing the number of dedicated, effective teachers in our classrooms. Educational inequality is one of our nation’s most pressing problems and I’m proud to pursue a career that allows me to work towards solving it. I hope you will join me in the movement to provide all of our children with an excellent education.

Photo by Jean-Christian Bourcar

Watch A Day in the Life of three TFA participants.