Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Service: The Seemingly Obvious Choice

Service Learning

I have chosen to integrate service learning into Dr. Ellis’ Understanding Literature class. I have to admit this decision was not a difficult one. Freshman year, I spent hours assisting refugees at the Refugee Resettlement Agency, searching for open positions and editing resumes. During my sophomore year, I advocated for those with developmental disabilities on Maryland’s Waiting List, writing to the Governor and state Legislators asking that more money be diverted from the general fund to help Maryland’s most deserving. As a political science major, these service learning opportunities have been a great way to combine my career goals with the act of discernment, something crucial to any “student of life.” After the first day of Understanding Literature, I apprehensively glanced at my junior year academic schedule coupled with a 400 level seminar and an internship in the Governor’s Office, and realized it was this two hour block of time dedicated to others that would keep me sane.

Refugee Resettlement Agency

My current resume states that I interned at the Refugee Resettlement Agency my freshman year, clearly a great addition to any pretentious foreign policy grad program I could ever dream of applying for. However, in all reality, this service project was less than enviable. (Disclaimer: for all of you who are unaware, a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution who flees their country afraid for their lives). Assisting at the Refugee Resettlement Agency was the epitome of bureaucracy: slow, unorganized and dysfunctional. The room sat in the back of a tiny building off of Eastern Avenue; the gray carpet added to the gloomy, windowless space, as if the refugees needed a little more sadness in their already tumultuous lives. On the surface, my time at the Resettlement Agency was a lot like the Mending Wall, by Robert Frost. Our jobs were noble: find these persons a job, a home, a new life. Just as the speaker in the poem says, “I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; and on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go,” we met the refugees to walk the line, assisting them in building the foundation for their new lives (Frost 371). However, the encounter, depicted by Resettlement Agency as well as the poem, was not typically a joyous occasion. No matter how prestigious the job or how beautiful the home, we could never mend what was truly wrong with the refugees: the fact that their entire lives had been uprooted, their family members murdered and their livelihoods stolen out from under them. Just as the speaker could not fix the true problems with his neighbor by mending the wall, we could not fix their hearts with employment and permanent residences.


I finished my service learning at the Refugee Resettlement Agency somber, yet not broken. It was a phone call I made towards the end of November that instilled hope where there was little left dwindling. On this particular day, I was to call refugees to confirm that the job with which we placed them was still current. The young woman I was asking to speak with was a refugee from Afghanistan and had previously been employed at a local bakery. Upon speaking with her mother, I had learned that she was no longer working but instead attending University full time in Maryland on an academic scholarship. Hearing this success made me realize that despite the hardships involved for both the refugees and our office, the stories of hope were truly inspiring. I realized that although my service learning experience was challenging, I was able to help mend the wall that inspired this young woman to never give up. After all, it was the speaker in Mending Wall who finally concluded: “Good fences make good neighbors” (Frost 371).

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