Service as important as class

A part of my college education is missing. The classes I took were great (at least some of them), and I did well in my classes (at least some of them). But when I wasn’t in the library or lab trying to keep up with better-prepared students, I was working as a dishwasher in the cafeteria, earning money to pay for tuition.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of watching thousands of UF students celebrate raising a record of more than $2 million for UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital in the Dance Marathon. More than 2,300 students planned or participated in the event, including 825 dancers who stayed on their feet for more than 26 hours. That so many committed an entire weekend to helping sick children left an indelible impression on me.

I am awestruck that so many of you give up portions of your weeks in school, your Spring Break and even your summers to serve others. You volunteer at UF Shands Hospital. You paint school classrooms, clean up neighborhoods, mentor at-risk youths, volunteer overseas through service trips and perform many other community service good deeds — locally, nationally and worldwide.  

The UF culture of leading through serving and working together for a greater good persists beyond graduation. It is one reason UF consistently ranks among the nation’s top five universities in the number of graduates entering the Peace Corps.

I missed a number of personal benefits by not being involved in a service organization and not volunteering my time while in college. I missed the opportunity to work toward a goal that was greater than just my exams, papers and grades. I missed the opportunity to learn from, and be inspired by, other students working not for themselves but together for a greater cause.

Educators now know that service-learning can be a meaningful component of a college curriculum. Not only is the classroom important, but experiential learning and the living-learning environment contribute to a student’s education. What we learn outside of the classroom and our textbooks can motivate, inspire and even transform our lives.

Fortunately, my graduate divinity studies included a mandatory service-learning requirement. I worked as a volunteer middle-school tutor in the Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago. That brief experience was as meaningful as any course I took in college. The privilege of serving others and working with a team toward a common positive goal was incredibly satisfying. The challenges that I faced in my studies and personal finances seemed to fade when I was volunteering. I felt energized and inspired because I saw how I was making a positive difference.

I know there are many UF students who need to devote almost all their energy and time to study and work and who aren’t able to devote significant time to volunteer activities. However, if you can’t take advantage of the educational opportunities to learn through serving now, I urge you to do so when the opportunity is right.  

Making a positive difference by enabling others to achieve their aspirations is the meaning behind the phrase “For the Gator Good.” The UF culture of Leading through Serving is one reason The Gator Nation is unique.