For students, a summer of service in Baltimore

Colman McCarthy

August 11, 1993|By Colman McCarthy

BY LATE afternoon, the three college students had said their "see ya tomorrows" -- accompanied by some hugs -- to the grade school kids they had been tutoring at the Koinonia Baptist Church in the poor but resilient Waverly neighborhood. The collegians, halfway through what they are likely to recall as the most socially useful and intellectually alive summer of their undergraduate days, are volunteers in Summer of Service, the Clinton administration's trial run for the national service program.

In Baltimore, one of 16 cities chosen from some 430 applications, they and 21 others have been counseling, teaching and befriending several hundred grade-school children in eight low-income neighborhoods. In addition to a minimum wage salary, a $1,000 educational scholarship is granted at summer's end.

On the afternoon I came to Baltimore to learn what the college students thought of their labors and the program, the Senate was stalled by a Republican-led filibuster. It's a tax and spend program, Republican leaders charged. Had Robert Dole and his obstructionist friends engaged in some taxing and spending of their own -- tax themselves to visit a Summer of Service site and spend time with the serving and served -- they might have converted to being champions, not blockers, of the program. A few days later the filibuster was broken and the Senate passed bipartisan legislation -- as did the House earlier -- that would award up to $4,725 a year for two If the talents and idealism of this summer's 24 college students in Baltimore are a hint of what's ahead for the national program, the country will be receiving a gift of irreplaceable value.

years of community service before, during or after college.

If the talents and idealism of this summer's 24 college students in Baltimore are a hint of what's ahead for the national program, the country will be receiving a gift of irreplaceable value. More college students than we realize are ready to make commitments to community service.

Some have been inspired by service programs in their high schools, where social studies departments now realize that as much can be learned about society by working for it as by studying it in class. Others have faith-based philosophies of service inspired by religious values that are alternatives to the world's chaos and confusion. And some -- the luckiest -- have parents who raised them to find life's meaning in getting involved, not getting ahead.

Those backgrounds were evident in the Baltimore group I met with at the College of Notre Dame, which is providing dorm rooms. They were mostly from East Coast schools -- including Wesleyan, Yale, Goucher, Loyola, the University of Maryland and Salisbury State -- and had been chosen from 200 applicants.

These are among the volunteers and some of their reflections on what their experience meant to them and to the children they tutored:

* Michelle Vivanz, a spring Goucher College graduate: "My work this summer has given my children a sense of hope. Just today one of mycampers commented that she could not be intelligent because only rich white people can be that. . . . By me just explaining where I am from and what I have accomplished, I can give her hope." Ms. Vivanz, who is black, is applying to law schools.

* Gitte Geng, a Yale sophomore: "My experience this summer has given me a deeper vision. It is more important now that I do things that are truly meaningful. The summer has made me think about what I want to do with the rest of my life, knowing now that whatever it is, I want to serve in some way."

* Dale Crowell, a University of Maryland senior: "My kids are the future. Yes, that's a cliche, but our society and the path it follows will rely on how we raise our kids. I've only been with them for a month, and my impact is a long shot but it's the only shot I've got at this moment."

* Manju Chatani, a University of Maryland honors program senior: "I've been in touch with a group of children who have seen and experienced so much more than I ever will. They are teaching me. It is sometimes depressing to realize how much these kids are up against. It is sad that a 7-year-old is so streetwise and has lost his childhood. I will never be the same. It is the most challenging experience I've had and the one that I will grow most from."

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who speaks of service as the natural result of citizenship, argues that "the Me Decade (of the '80s) must give way to the We Decade" of the '90s. The dismissal of cynics aside, that appears to be happening.

An estimated 100,000 college students are expected to enroll in the national service program in the next three years. Should they turn out to be as spirited and giving as these volunteers in Baltimore, we'll be asking, why weren't we doing this all along?

Colman McCarthy is a Washington writer and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.

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