As I have stated in class discussions, I am a firm believer that one can only be fully educated by experiencing the world. Reading from text books and listening to others’ stories are simply not an adequate ways to educate oneself. Therefore, I am really excited to take full advantage of the service option in our service-learning class. Although I have not started volunteering in college yet, I have a lot of high school experience that has helped me to grow and learn. I will always value these life lessons for they have shaped me into the person I am today.
One of the challenges of doing service is getting past the automatic barriers that go up to guard from the unfamiliar. Prejudices we, as a society, are raised with block us from seeing the true world and appreciating it. Volunteering for people with disabilities was hard at first because of the overload of emotions I went through. I felt sorry for the people at the Radiant Star Nursing Home and Cerebral Palsy of New Jersey, and therefore couldn’t bring myself to get close enough. This reminds me of “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost.
In the poem, the speaker discusses the hardships of putting up walls as a seclusion device. On a positive side, one could argue, they keep from change and away from conflicting with traditional senses. However, that lack of change is what hinders one from growing spiritually and educationally. Although the speaker kept the wall mended, he took those steps towards the future by talking to his neighbor. I broke down my walls by talking to CP of New Jersey at the annual Christmas party and bonding with the five year old at the craft table. Just listening to the stories in the nursing homes I volunteered in and their history of working on a farm or in WWII, allowed me to learn about them and connect even more. These experiences have taught me to break down my walls towards the people around me, and let their stories be heard so that I can get close with someone different than myself.
Those experiences in high school and more, such as holding fundraisers and educational events for the people in Darfur and organizing a present donation for the local orphanage, has truly enabled me to understand the differences of other people in regards to ethnicity, culture, and privilege. Before freshmen fall orientation, I participated in Student Orientation to Service, or S.O.S. I can honestly say that this program changed me. I volunteered in Baltimore at Beans and Bread and many other facilities. I learned about men and women experiencing homelessness, and those less fortunate than me. Coming from a small farming community, I was not familiar with these social issues. This ignorance from my family and I led me to overlook panhandlers, not being intentionally mean, just not acknowledging their existence or the problem at hand.
S.O.S changed that. I participate in Care-A-Van which enabled me to speak with men and women experiencing homelessness and hear their amazing stories. I also spoke with men at the Frederick Ozanam House during an informal dinner. These two experiences have honestly put me past the walls I put up and realize that we all share common ground, as Judith Ortiz Cofer cleverly describes in her poem “Common Ground”. I interpreted the poem as meaning that no matter people’s physical and cultural differences, everyone shares similarities. One of the men I talked to at FOH told me that he loves Emily Dickinson poems and the Jaws movies, as do I. He also is striving to obtain his GED like I am working at a college degree, and we both have trouble with grammar… I loved talking with him because it made me realize that if I kept my attitude of staying away from everything unfamiliar I would never have gotten to know these wonderful individuals.
All of my experiences have taught me to not judge a book by its cover, and enabled me to share these lessons with others. Referring back to “Mending Wall” which states that “good fences make good neighbors”, putting up a wall just creates strangers. Learning about others and broadening my horizons has aided in my learning process. These walls do nothing positive. Prejudices are frankly ridiculous when, if you think about it, everyone just ends up in the same ‘common ground’ anyway. The differences are what drives people together and allows them to grow, as does the similarities.
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had in my life thus far. I plan on continuing to broaden my knowledge and experience through service in the Jesuit education. That is the only way one can truly learn and embody the world as it really is. My only hope is that this year, while learning all that I can and connecting with new people, I can open someone else’s eyes to the wonderful and diverse world around us so that they can learn and serve as well.