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Revolutionary Compassion

A QUIET revolution - a revolution of compassion - is taking place on college campuses across the country. At its forefront is a dedicated band of students who are leading their peers away from the "Me Generation" and toward a new era of campus-based community service.

In 22 years as a college chaplain, I have never seen as much interest among students in serving people and in addressing social issues.

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But a "revolution"?

Yes. If the movement toward social activism on college campuses in the late 1960s and early '70s was a revolution, then surely we are in the middle of another one now.

There are clear differences, of course. The campus revolution of the '60s was largely triggered by external forces, in particular the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. It involved much angry talk, boycotts of classes, even occasional outbursts of violence. No similar external threat or sweeping social change is motivating the current widespread interest in community service.

But the change in attitude and behavior among students is quite dramatic. At Lafayette College, for instance, more than 700 of our 2,000 students are active in 25 programs of sustained voluntary service. In 1975, there were only two community service programs here.

Instead of storming the symbols of power and indifference, today's students are challenging the status quo by building a more just and caring future brick by brick, meal by meal, child by child. The action in this campaign is taking place in locations such as a shelter for women and children, a housing project, the county prison, a convalescent center, a third-grade classroom, and a soup kitchen.

The impetus for the movement is coming from the students themselves - not faculty, not administrators. Not only do they put in long hours as volunteers, they run many of the programs. They coordinate tutoring programs at the prison; schedule the visits to the school, shelter, and soup kitchen; and give up spring breaks to go to places like Arizona, Kentucky, and Honduras to build a community center, repair sub-standard housing, or paint a hospital.

So where will this revolution take us?

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We are seeing that community service often changes students' perspectives toward people in need and toward social problems in general. A student who spends night after night working in a shelter for homeless men cannot help but emerge with an understanding of marginalization that transcends the 11 o'clock news.

Our challenge as educators is not just to support the students in their efforts to help others, but also to provide opportunities for those involved to reflect on their experiences and address the broad questions that emerge from them, such as: Why are there homeless people on our streets? What is "success" for a child growing up poor in an affluent society? How can we help others but avoid creating dependency?

If we support the campus community service revolution in this way, helping maximize the students' learning experience as they help others, we can expect that some student volunteers will become advocates of systemic social change. Others will seek to ease the pain of those who are marginalized through individual philanthropy and service. Either way, our society will gain.

A strength of our nation throughout its history has been the role of voluntary service in creating communities and addressing human needs. The current generation of students is in the forefront of reawakening this fundamental American value.

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