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Who am I serving?

| Thursday, October 16, 2014

I remember in high school there was a two-week summer period during which it seemed every person and his twice-removed grandma went on a service trip to (insert Central American country here). I remember countless Instagram and Facebook posts of people lovingly holding orphans in their arms or smiling at sweet, old indigenous women and men. I remember not being able to decide whether it was okay to cringe at these picture because I couldn’t decide if they were tasteless or thoughtful.

It wasn’t as if those people were trying to be tasteless; it was more likely that they were thrilled about the time they had spent in that country, and they wanted to share it with the rest of the world.

I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that lingered, however. It wasn’t that I felt service shouldn’t be publicized, but I thought it was inappropriate when it seemed all about gaining attention.

It makes me question my own intentions before I leave for the immersion part of my Appalachia seminar over fall break. Through the Center for Social Concerns, I will be traveling to Vanceburg, Kentucky, to serve at Glenmary Farms.

On one hand, I have never been more excited to travel to the Appalachia region, which I have been learning about for the past five weeks; on the other hand, I am apprehensive. I am apprehensive because I don’t know my true intentions for going on this trip. Of course, I want to do service, which is why I applied in the first place.

But I can’t help but wonder: who am I really serving? Am I serving the people of the region, or am I serving myself? Am I serving myself because doing service gives me a feeling of self-satisfaction? Am I serving others to the best of my ability to be truly selfless?

Or does selflessness in service not matter as much as it seems to?

I don’t know the answer yet; I probably still will not know the answer when I return, as a week is an incredibly short amount of time when doing service. It is not enough time to understand a region. And, without a full understanding of the region, I won’t actually know the impact of my actions.

It well may be that I spend my entire life trying to figure out the real purpose behind the service I take on. It well may be that selflessness in service is a naïve and dated idea and that good service heavily involves the person doing it because of self-reflection and dedication.

By Susan Zhu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Brandon

    Susan, I went to Appalachia four times and did the Migrant Experiences seminar in Florida twice when I was at Notre Dame. Your reflection really hits it on the head. I’ve found that if you emphasize the service-LEARNING part, it helps you understand what you’re doing. We’re always learning from these experiences, often never serving as much as we learn. And that’s fine, as long as we acknowledge it. Have a wonderful trip to Kentucky.