Villanova Gets Student Volunteerism Wrong

The spirit of community service shouldn't be about competition

One Saturday each September, Villanova celebrates its founder with a St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service. Roughly 4,000 students turn up at 8 a.m. and spread out across Philadelphia to paint walls, clean, weed, pick up trash and plant flowers. Day of Service gets a lot of criticism, as it should: It’s the only day that Villanova really encourages its students to serve, and makes no real lasting difference. More than anything, Day of Service helps Villanovans feel good about themselves, without allowing them to feel good about changing the impoverished areas of Philadelphia.

Villanova does offer other opportunities for its students to serve, but there are miserable flaws in the Villanova system. Most schools pay students to give campus tours, but to have that honor at Villanova, you have to apply, sit through two interviews, and attend a day-long training session—all to give tours to a bunch of high-school kids and their parents. Still, Villanovans overwhelmingly apply for these positions. Most get turned away.

At the Service Learning Community, which also requires an application and an interview, volunteers get to live together in one dorm, take classes together and serve together, essentially making service a type of clique. A sophomore at Villanova, I’m actually a member of group, and there are serious perks, like getting into classes that are otherwise impossible to enroll in and living in a dorm that’s cheaper by several hundred dollars. However, there’s obviously a problem with the program: Students who don’t get into Service Learning are essentially told they aren’t good enough to do weekly service with their peers.

For a university that prides itself on being a service-oriented school, Villanova doesn’t quite seem to understand the concept of serving. Volunteering is something everyone should be encouraged to do (more than once a year at Day of Service, one of the few times students need not apply). Villanova should be handing students more opportunities to serve, not making them compete for it.

I’m the vice-president of a student-run homeless shelter, so I’m well-versed in the challenges of running an organization and keeping students involved. My team and I interview students just to judge their level of interest and commitment and to place them accordingly. Last semester, I ran a committee of more than 30 students; eight regularly appeared at the weekly meetings, and 12 of them never once replied to my emails.

College students have a lot of issues with commitment, so rigorous applications for serious positions are appropriate. But to make me apply so I can show some high-school seniors my dorm room? Interview just so I can go into Philly and serve dinner to the homeless?

It’s frustrating that at Villanova, volunteering is not just about helping others and doing good deeds, it’s a competition to out-perform your peers. If your résumé isn’t the most impressive, you aren’t invited to tutor nearby at poor high schools, or help with an adult literacy program in Philly, and on and on. Everyone knows about Villanova’s snobby reputation, but to be snobby about volunteering crosses a line in my mind. It’s a little out of hand. I shouldn’t have to compete with my peers because I want to make a difference in Philadelphia.