Use volunteering as an avenue for friendship

By Sam Kottoor, Columnist

For most of us, a constant reassurance in life is that we are “good” people. When we observe other people doing bad things, we think to ourselves, “At least I’m not a bad person.” When we want to do one small bad thing, our rationale is that, “Normally, I’m a good person, I can let this slide.” We pride ourselves on being more morally aligned than the average person.

So what motivates people to volunteer? Why is it popular for college students to travel to distant parts of the world to provide aid to those less fortunate? Service can be an incredible thing; to help a fellow brother or sister in need is what ties humanity together. However, volunteering can be very counterproductive. Subtly, it can end up putting down the very people we were trying to help.

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Stereotyping can get the best of us. Many people participate in a volunteering event with a predisposed pity for the people they will be working with. When travelling to an underdeveloped community or working in a poorer area than where they grew up, volunteers will feel they are doing some great service for people who seem too weak or stupid to help themselves.

With this comes an ego boost, and in this case, it’s the feeling of being a good person for helping those who are lesser than you. This ideology can end up being incredibly toxic and strips the people we serve of their humanity. No one wants to be pitied. We tie a cape around our necks and feel like heroes, who serve those who are incapable of helping themselves out. This can eat away at the self worth of those we are serving, ending up causing more hurt than help.

Instead, we can improve on the current situation and approach volunteering with a different mindset. If we change our goals, we can end up truly serving the people we encounter without dehumanizing them.

Instead of intending to help someone who can’t help themselves, we should approach the situation as a potential for learning, where the people we help have as much to offer us as we have to offer to them. How can you understand someone’s story before you’ve opened their book? By building a relationship, you gain access to their stories.  Through these things, we can form a partnership instead of a hierarchy.

Avoid using the word charity; this leads to the aggrandizement of our own egos. Describe your endeavors as service learning opportunities. Instead of treating volunteering as a task that needs to get done to reaffirm that we are good people, when the intent of service is friendship, we can build relationships that last.

Sam is a sophomore in Engineering.

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