Should we ask students to “give back” to society?

Actually, many do: all sorts of volunteers out there, such as the churches and religious groups helping to clean up after the recent tornadoes and floods. A lot of those doing so are following the family tradition. My grandkids routinely work at soup kitchens and in community gardens, and my son has worked in foodbanks and supervising college students helping repair houses in Appalachea.

A similar “pay back” to the country is found by those who join the Armed services. Many families, includng my own, have World War II veterans and others who served in the military or National Guard. The reason is patriotism, something that is too often sneered at in some circles.

For middle class and working class students, joining the military to get trained in a skill or using ROTC or the National Guard was common. However, with wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, joining up for monetary reasons is probably down, although patriotism and the idea of serving one’s country has kept recruitment numbers stable.

But what about America’s “elites”?

For awhile, the “Ivy League” universities refused to have ROTC, claiming it discriminated against gays, but now that they are allowing gays to openly serve, how are the elite schools responding to this?

The VolokkConspiracy Blog has a discussion in the issue, and one commenter notes that many from these schools serve in development work overseas; however, this comment is wrong. Although many Ivy League graduates work in domestic altruistic jobs such as “Teach America”, few join the Peace Corps.

Nicolas Kristoff blames the two year commitment as part of the problem. I disagree.

You see, it takes that long to actually get to know who you are working with, and this is true whether you are working with the Chippewa in Minnesota or the MaShona in Zimbabwe.

Culture shock is a problem, and one of the hints that one may adjust the best is living in a truly multicultural society: No, not what passes for “multiculturalism” in many schools, but rubbing elbows with folks who not only don’t agree with you but actually think completely differently than you do.

And once you can recognize the differences, then you can figure out the best ways to help.

True, if you are just building a church during the summer, or cleaning up garbage after one of Manila’s floods, you don’t need to be fluent in the language or customs.

But if you are teaching school, you need to know little things (example: he’s not making a face, he’s pointing with his lips; another example: this culture discourages eye contact between inferiors and superiors.)

Even we docs need to get the trust of our patients, and often that trust takes time to develop.

The bad news in all of this is that the increase in college tuition has made taking off two years to spend helping the world is financially impossible.

I myself had my schooling paid for by LBJ’s “Great Society” program with scholarships and loans, but the loan was small and paid back quickly.

If I graduated from college with half a million dollar debt, I doubt I could have worked overseas after my residency.

I’m not familiar with the programs that are available for today’s students, so comments would be welcome.

There are still loans which allow forgiveness by working as a doc in a high need area. And, of course, the military remains a way to get an education.

Perhaps before we encourage two years payback, one might consider making tuition again affordable for the middle class.

All I know is that my American relatives send their kids to Manila to become nurses and doctors because it’s a lot cheaper.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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