“What Are You Doing for Others?”

Community service has been on my mind a lot lately. When January rolls around, we have two huge opportunities to think about the role that service can play in our lives. On the third Monday in January, we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A few weeks later, on the third Monday in February, we celebrate Presidents Day, originally planned to mark the birthday of our first president, but more popularly considered today to celebrate all US presidents, past and present. Both days are days off from school, days off from work, and even days when the Federal government is closed. So, we could relax, watch some Netflix, and eat lots of nachos.

Or we could find a way to serve.

In 1957, Dr. King declared, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Choosing to answer that question in a meaningful way calls us not only to find a volunteer opportunity for one of these lucky days off from school, but also asks us to think about what it means.

And great news: that’s what colleges want you to do too. Despite my opening musing abstractly on service opportunities, for many students the idea of community service is often a looming pressure in their college application. Perhaps you’re worried that you haven’t had time for enough hours, or that you know other students in your class who have devoted more energy to creating a nonprofit or organizing a rally. These fears are compounded during COVID when most students were unable to attend any service day and many sites were closed to outsiders.

Rather than counting hours, ask yourself, what are you doing for others?

When that is the question, service becomes much more meaningful.

One of my favorite places to volunteer is the Greater DC Diaper Bank (there are Diaper Banks across the country — find your local one here). Though I have volunteered at GDCDB for years, I have never handed a diaper to a baby or to the parent who is in need of this basic item for a healthy child. My work there usually is packaging diapers into small, manageable packs of 25 diapers each from large Costco-style boxes. I don’t see the end result, but wow, when I see all of those diapers packaged up and I realize the enormity of the need in the DC area for diapers, I am super grateful I had the chance to help.

Over the years, I have had many students complain that they couldn’t quite see this connection I see at the Diaper Bank — that the tasks they were doing at a service site just didn’t feel important. I know many students who have volunteered at hospitals who were frustrated that their work did not seem to be about medicine so much as about logistics. But I also had a student write an absolutely beautiful college essay two years ago about helping one very nervous patient feel calm and supported before a surgery. She began her service hoping to learn more about being a doctor, and she did. But her lesson wasn’t about science or technology. It was about humanity.

So, this year, in honor of MLK or George Washington, or just of humanity, think about what could be a meaningful service experience for you. Take some time to think about your talents. Perhaps you could tutor or coach using a skill you have worked on. Perhaps you could test out that new drivers’ license by bringing groceries to an elderly neighbor or running errands for someone who can’t always make it out.

As you serve, ask yourself what you are doing for others. And then, ask yourself how are you changed by that service? Serving others can be transformative. And THAT makes a great college essay.