When I applied to college, I sat at a desk for hours, crafting the most alluring answers for my application. I tried to emphasize the best parts of myself, overstating my involvement in social justice and community service. To high school students desperate to secure a spot at top colleges, using these words might feel like a gateway to an acceptance letter. For institutions, however, the very same language might be used for advertisement, attached a false sense of social responsibility to their reputation.
A week before my first-year peers moved in, I was already at NYU for a service opportunity called Project Outreach. According to their website, Project Outreach aims for participants to “gain leadership skills, build community, and engage in service throughout NYC.” Although its intentions may be good, the program made me feel uneasy at times, and my participation in it has left me with mixed feelings.
I would like to believe that Project Outreach does its best at fulfilling its mission. We were only photographed during breaks out of respect for the organizations involved, and our peer mentors maintained an inclusive environment during discussions. Making new friends and connections helped to ease my fear of meeting new people. The discourse revolving around social justice and inequality on all spectrums demonstrated the commitment participants had to helping others, but the program itself was a genuine eye-opener to the massive privilege NYU students have.
I would hope that Project Outreach never intended to present itself as voluntouristic. The idea of week-long service opportunities intended for clout makes it seem as if volunteering on behalf of the university is a way to compensate for its institutional guilt. When it comes to volunteering, the idea of community service does not lie solely on the physical change you make — it’s the intentions you have, the communities you enter and the people you impact.
One specific event that left me confused took place on our last service day; a sweaty train ride to Queens wearing bright yellow t-shirts plastered with NYU’s logo along with the title “Project Outreach 2019.” That morning, over 100 of us swarmed into a local park in Queens, ready to paint its chipping fences.
As much as I enjoyed painting the park’s fences and getting curious looks from joggers and small children, the idea of promoting ourselves while also doing community service in a community that didn’t belong to us felt very forced and at times voluntouristic. Voluntourism attracts students because it makes them feel fulfilled, both service and character-wise. However, the foundational issue with voluntourism superficially engages volunteers and creates an unnecessary sense of collective guilt in various communities. During my time in Project Outreach, I constantly received stares from bystanders as they watched me rip weeds, paint fences and deliver meals.
Sometimes I questioned if over 100 freshmen wearing uniform shirts painting a fence in Queens were doing local residents a favor, or if I was just a part of institutional gentrification — something NYU has been derided for exacerbating. Although I personally felt Project Outreach had a positive impact on my experience, the idea of doing intrusive community service while repping NYU has undeniable implications.
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Email Kenzo Kimura at [email protected]