Realistic Idealists

September 11, 2005 | By Alex Williams 

LYNN GROSSMAN, a writer in Manhattan who is married to the actor Bob Balaban, comes from a long line of social activists. Her mother joined the civil rights movement, and she herself marched in protest of the Vietnam War. But she said that things had changed by the time her eldest daughter, Mariah, now 27, came of age.

For many in Mariah’s generation, community service was little more than a requirement that private schools imposed for graduation. Some took brief working vacations in places like Costa Rica, or the Caribbean island of Dominica, where they helped build roads and houses. “These kids had never seen a hammer before,” Ms. Grossman said with a laugh. “I don’t know what they did aside from get suntans.”

Now, she said, “things are completely different.”

As an eighth grader, her youngest daughter, Hazel, transformed a basement storage room in a Brooklyn homeless shelter into a library stocked with 5,000 volumes. At 13, she mobilized her fellow students to paint walls, hire librarians and design a functioning library-card system linked to a computer database. “We were floored,” Ms. Grossman said. “And it’s not just Hazel. A lot of kids out there are like this. They are like C.E.O.’s of community service.”

Hazel Balaban, now a freshman at Connecticut College in New London, spent her first days on campus last week trying to organize a bake sale for victims of Hurricane Katrina. “It’s almost expected,” she said. “With the Internet and 24-hour TV, you just see all these problems. They’re everywhere.”

Hazel is at the leading edge of a generation whose sense of community involvement was born four years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks spurred an unprecedented outpouring of donations and volunteerism from Americans. Since then teenagers have witnessed the deadly Florida hurricane season of 2004, the more than 150,000 killed by the tsunami in Asia last December, and now Katrina. Encouraged by an increasing number of high schools with community service requirements and further motivated by college admissions offices looking for reasons to choose one honor student over another, teenagers are embracing social activism with the zeal of missionaries and the executive skills of seasoned philanthropists. Not only are more students participating, educators say, the scale of ambition seems to be continually increasing.

“We’ve seen a shift in the zeitgeist away from what you would call ‘community service’ and more into social action,” said Tom Krattenmaker, a spokesman for Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. “It’s not just about working in a soup kitchen,” he said, but about “creating new programs, shooting higher.”

GREGORY PYKE, the senior associate dean of admission at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said that one recent applicant had started a Web-based initiative to collect eyeglasses—thousands of pairs—to be passed along to the needy in underprivileged countries. Another created a large-scale program to collect and refurbish discarded computers before passing them along to the poor. “The number of discussions where a dean is pulling us aside and saying, ‘You have to hear about what this kid has done’ has also gone up,” he said.

While cynics—and not a few colleges—may question whether the young people initiating such grand projects are looking to impress admissions officers, Mr. Pyke said he thought that most of the motivation was altruistic. “These are kids who are aware of many ways in which world is a pretty lousy place,” he said. “They want to exercise more authority in the world than adults give them credit for.”

Educators, sociologists and parents explain the outpouring of youthful philanthropy by noting that this generation has been bombarded not only by bad news, all of which seems to demand an immediate response, but by calls to action from political leaders and celebrities. Disaster relief, unlike opposition to the Vietnam War, which stirred many in their parents’ generation, is uncontroversial and encourages wide-scale participation. And once roused, young people have greater tools at their disposal, particularly the Internet, to expand projects.

More than 82 percent of high school seniors performed volunteer work, according to the 2004 American Freshman survey, a nationwide poll conducted by a graduate division of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared with just over 74 percent a decade earlier, and 66 percent in 1989.

The Collegiate Challenge program run by Habitat for Humanity in which students spend a week of their summer building housing for the poor in cities throughout the nation, has grown twelve-fold since it started in 1989, said Alynn Woodson, the manager. It has seen a 30 percent growth in participation by high school students in the last two years. “In some ways service has gotten to be kind of a trendy thing to do,” Ms. Woodson said.

Katrina is the cause of the moment, and students across the country have responded like seasoned aid workers. By Sept. 2, four days after the storm came ashore in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, students at Westside High School in Houston had raised more than $16,000 for the American Red Cross.

“We have 2,870 students,” said Noralea Jordan, the senior class president, who helped organize the drive. “If we made $16,000 in a day, I’m sure in another week we could triple that.”

That same day, students at Boiling Springs High School in South Carolina collected 6,000 gallons of bottled water. “We’re not very good at our football, but it’s been said by rival football teams, ‘Whenever it comes to things that matter, Boiling Springs always gets the job done,’ “said Jessica Gregg, 17, the student body president.

At many schools students were ready to mobilize because they have had so much practice. Cloydia Garrette, 17, the student council president at Jack Yates High School in Houston and a veteran of drives to raise money for tsunami victims, leukemia research and Ronald McDonald House, collected clothes and other essentials when evacuees from New Orleans began to reach the Astrodome. Charity is infectious, she said, “A lot of kids see us doing it, and they’re following along.”

Once rare, community service is now mandatory for an increasing number of schools in all 50 states, said Jennifer Piscatelli, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. Maryland requires every high school student to perform 75 hours of public service to graduate, and similar requirements exist at school districts in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. College officials have taken such activity into account when making admission decisions. Bruce Walker, the vice provost and director of admissions for the University of Texas in Austin, said the university, which is faced with an increasing number of qualified candidates, is paying more attention to applicants’ public service, or as he said, “what kind of citizen they were, and are.”

BUT even increased basic requirements do not seem to account for the grandiosity of initiatives on the part of many teenagers, educators say. “It’s kind of intimidating to see what some kids have done,” Mr. Walker said. In Owings Mills, Md., two high school freshman, Greg Becker and Michael Swirnow, exceeded the McDonogh School’s 40-hour community service requirement by doing 500 hours. Starting when they were 14, the boys set out to raise money to build a house for a struggling family in Baltimore through Habitat for Humanity.

“Sometimes, doing everything you can isn’t enough,” said Greg, who initiated the effort. Through meetings with executives at various foundations and a raffle that raised $42,000 (a Mini Cooper was the top prize), the students collected $88,000.

“At first, I never really thought about it as something for college,” said Michael, now 15. “As it went on, though, it suddenly hit me: this is going to be huge on my college application.”

Such examples of over-the-top public service can put a competitive pressure on other families who believe colleges are watching. For those who have yet to fall into line with the trend, the anxieties can be great. “I’ve had three families come in today saying, ‘What is this community service thing?’ “said Howard Greene, a private college admissions consultant in Manhattan.

But some college admissions counselors have already grown skeptical about what’s known in the trade as the “How I Saved the World” essay, as well as about projects that just happen to commence early in a student’s junior year. “There are two sides, to me,” said Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore, which this past year received 300 more freshman applications than the previous year. “One is the jaded side—is it a strategy? The other side is, is it part of a new generation of students who really are committed to making a better world?”

Mr. Bock noted that his college put a high premium on public service: it highlights Swarthmore students’ antigenocide initiatives in Sudan alongside its main features on its Web home page. Two weeks ago Mr. Bock watched a colleague ask nearly 400 freshman at an orientation seminar how many had done community service projects in high school.

“I’ll have to admit I was moved,” Mr. Bock said. “Ninety-five percent of the freshmen stood up.”

Katherine Cohen, a college admissions consultant who has discussed community service with many high school students in Manhattan, noted that admitting such candidates was in the colleges’ self-interest. “Colleges love to see fund-raisers, of course,” Ms. Cohen said. “Ding-ding-ding, the bell goes off, because they want to see money raised in the future” for their own endowments.

Teenagers who pull off outsize projects shrug off suspicions that their aims were other than altruistic. Michael Swirnow, the Maryland youth who helped raise $88,000 for Habitat for Humanity, said the motivating factor was to “give back” to the less fortunate. “I think the most important thing is learned I’m capable of doing something this big,” he said. “It’s about confidence.”

Several educators said that it didn’t really matter in the end whether teenagers were expending effort out of self-interest or altruism so long as good deeds were done. Some level of self-interest, after all, is why kids read books and do homework.

“This is a generation that was born after the consciousness revolution” of the 1960’s and 70’s, said William Strauss, the co-author with Neil Howe of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” a portrait of Americans born after 1982. “A lot of them are now children of baby boomers, and they look at them as a generation that looked at the self instead of the community. Now they’ve turned that around. Generations set themselves apart by correcting the mistakes they perceive their parents to have made.”

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