The Eye

To Provide and Serve: Community Service Outside of Columbia’s Gates

Columbia College sophomore Hayden McGovern, a brother of the Sigma Nu Fraternity with a thick mustache and full beard, is talking about puppies. He volunteers with a group called Mighty Mutts, which holds adoption drives in Union Square. Excitedly, he tells me they recently found a home for a dog named Kiko, who took a bullet for his previous owner.

McGovern began performing community service in high school, repairing homes in Kentucky and working with JDRF, a nonprofit dedicated to funding type 1 diabetes research. He is now the community service and philanthropy chair for Sigma Nu and works with the group Mentoring Youth in NYC, which is sponsored by Community Impact. He is visibly passionate about service work.

“I mean, I love it,” McGovern says. “It’s my favorite thing, and everybody makes fun of me for it. Like, ‘Oh great, Hayden’s doing philanthropy again!’ But it’s what I’m passionate about.”

Columbia College senior Megan Stater shares McGovern’s enduring passion for service work. In high school, she tutored children of migrant workers in her home state of Oregon. Now, she is the evaluations coordinator for Big SIBS, a mentoring program that pairs Columbia students with mentees aged seven to 13 from Morningside Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights.

“When I came to college … I’d also heard a lot about the good that mentoring can do for children, especially children coming from single parent homes and things like that,” Stater says. “So I decided to find a mentoring group, and then I came upon Big SIBS.”

Columbia students in service groups like Sigma Nu’s philanthropy arm, Big SIBS, and Columbia Youth Adventurers, which plans weekend trips for kids from P.S. 180, P.S. 129, and the Grant Houses, invest enormous quantities of their personal time in order to help the people they work with.

Big SIBS and CYA are both under the umbrella of Community Impact, which aims to serve “disadvantaged people” in Upper Manhattan. In order to serve these populations, students in these groups, and the dozens of other service organizations at Columbia, need to confront a wide range of challenges.

Practically speaking, community service coordinators at Columbia say that they sometimes struggle to define their missions, attract enough volunteers from sufficiently diverse backgrounds, and relate across a gap of privilege that might impact how they and people from local communities understand one another.

But at the heart of all these challenges is an effort to translate a passion for service into change on the ground, which means comprehending why these volunteers serve in the first place and what their goals are through service.  

While McGovern and Stater have no immediate plans to pursue careers in nonprofit work or education, engaging in community service encouraged Barnard senior and former Spectrum editor Samantha Sokol to enroll in a graduate program for teaching following a year of community service. She is currently the volunteer coordinator for CYA.

Both Big SIBS and CYA focus on forging connections between Columbia students and the kids they work with, but the population of Columbia students who volunteer can complicate this work and aren’t necessarily always compatible with the groups they serve.

“The specific challenge that Big SIBS has is not having enough male volunteers,” says Alissa Mayers, CI’s program manager for their youth programs and program manager of Big SIBS. “We are hugely lacking in male volunteers, and I think that’s across the board.”

More women than men tend to volunteer at the national level, and this trend holds true at Columbia. Big SIBS pairs male mentees with male mentors, and currently has about eight young boys waiting to be matched. CYA’s few male volunteers are all juniors, and this year’s new group of volunteers was “all girls.” The children they work with at P.S. 129 are mostly boys, so they need more male volunteers.

At Sigma Nu, McGovern is trying to promote community service among his brothers.

“That’s part of the reason why I am the philanthropy chair for Sigma Nu,” McGovern says. “It’s important to have men and women doing these things, as role models for people.”

McGovern also wants members of Sigma Nu to engage with the neighborhoods that are closer to Columbia’s campus, as CI does. Right now, he is planning a build with Columbia’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which constructs and renovates homes for local families. Even though McGovern loves volunteering with Mighty Mutts, he would much rather perform the same kind of work closer to Morningside Heights.

“It’s important to help the community that you’re part of directly,” he says. “It’s important to get out and learn about the community that you’re in. I would definitely advocate for more localized community service … just because I think it’s really important to give back to the community that has given me so much.”

Mayers also thinks that working with the surrounding communities is important for Columbia students engaging in service.

“Coming into college, I think a lot of students feel that they understand the world,” Mayers says. “But understanding your immediate environment is also important … it allows the mentor to connect more with the place they’re living in for four years instead of just seeing it as a college experience. It’s more than that.”

Likewise, localized community service means serving marginalized groups in Harlem and Washington Heights. It’s hard for volunteers to ignore the disparities in racial diversity and income that separate these neighborhoods from Morningside Heights as well as and Columbia’s role in the gentrification of these neighborhoods. Volunteering in ethnically and socioeconomically diverse environments prompts questions about differences in income and wealth as well as a student’s responsibility to serve.

“You’ll find that a college campus has a very manicured style,” Mayers says. “But the community that it’s in doesn’t usually reflect that. So what kinds of things are at play there? How does the community see the college campus? Do they see it as something that is enhancing the community or a detriment to it? And how do they themselves play into that? [Community service] helps you think a little bit more about how you fit into this environment.”

Likewise, working with Big SIBS encouraged Stater to ask herself similar questions and think more critically about community service. She is still looking for answers to these questions, but she knows that her service is molded by her background as a Columbia student.

“Big SIBS actually made me think more curiously about the significance of service, especially what service means,” Stater says. “Because you develop such a close connection with another person, it does force you to think, even though you might not be able to measure it, what am I doing? Why am I doing this?”

Understanding why she does philanthropy means understanding her role, her own background and the backgrounds of the people she is working with.

“What does it mean to for me to be a Columbia student going out into the community?” Stater asks. “I don’t necessarily have an answer to those questions, but over the past few years I’ve definitely become more conscious of the benefits of community service, and some of the more problematic aspects of what service can mean.”

Those problems can arise when there are misunderstandings between volunteers and the people they work with that arise from structural factors like race or gender.

CI’s youth programs work primarily with low-income students of color, and volunteers at Peace by PEACE, a CI program for students at P.S. 125 and P.S. 129 in Harlem, had to reconcile differences between students and the Columbia volunteers teaching them about racial stereotypes.

“[Peace by PEACE volunteers] voiced frustrations about themselves—that they needed student of color volunteers. … In this specific example, they were teaching students about stereotypes, and they just personally did not feel comfortable discussing stereotypes with them, especially racial stereotypes, because they personally didn’t have experience with being stereotyped racially,” Mayers says.

Big SIBS is looking to recruit more volunteers of color, especially men of color. The group recently advertised that it was seeking mentors in Columbia’s Black Student Organization’s spring email blast. This need is understood by Big SIBS in part because it is articulated by their constituents.

“We don’t have a lot of student of color mentors in our program, and some parents are very specific in that they would like a mentor that reminds their child of themselves,” Mayers says.

Mentoring programs like Big SIBS and CYA can also bridge gaps between students and Columbia volunteers. Unlike Peace by PEACE, which offers an academic curriculum, Big SIBS and CYA focus on fostering close relationships.

Sokol says that she recognized her privilege as a child and her continued privilege as a white student at Barnard, and she was worried that she might struggle to connect with children in CYA.

“I never really knew this population before I came to school here, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to bond with the kids, because I just didn’t know how much we would have in common,” she says.

“But my favorite thing is that they’re just kids. It’s not like they’re these different people, that are just low income. It’s not like that at all. It’s not the kind of thing where we’re going to save them, or teach them the way of going to Columbia. It’s not that at all. It’s really just spending time with kids and hanging out,” Sohol explains.

Service work, especially with children, can mean stripping away the complications of context and having normal conversations with normal people.

“I take interest in a lot of these education reform and social justice issues,” Sokol says. “I’m doing a year of service next year, so it’s on my mind. But honestly, when you're with the kids, all of that stuff flies out the window. Because it’s a 12-year-old kid. You’re not going to talk to them about our broken school system or institutionalized racism. You’re going to talk about Pokémon.”

Stater is also cautious about focusing on the differences between mentees and Columbia mentors.

“I also don’t necessarily think that one should overstate the differences, as if the kids we work with are radically different from any other child.”

Like Sokol, Stater doesn’t pretend to be saving any lives. She says what they do might help, but it doesn’t change the problems faced by the people they work with.

“I understand mentoring not as something where I’m coming into a child’s life and transforming something,” Stater says. “My thought is more that mentoring provides more of a possibility to build a relationship with someone and give a child someone to talk to who is not a member of their family, who is not in their friend group. That’s how I envisioned it, and I tried to make that possible.”

For Mayers, CI programs can ensure that Columbia’s impact on the surrounding community is positive, to the best of their ability.

She says that service work has a positive impact both through helping the surrounding communities, and through the dialogue that it sparks among the Columbia student body and between Columbia students and the community. But she acknowledges that her organization is materially limited in the scale of change it can affect.

“It’s a way of starting a conversation that can be tense at times,” Mayers says. “I wish there were more resources available for the community from Columbia, just because this organization is very limited by staff capacity and the willingness of students to volunteer in the programs we put out there.

“I do think it is a positive impact, I just also think it could be greater,” she says. “Because at this point, it’s being outpaced by the community’s need, and that is always a problem.”

Those interested in service will always have outlets for their passion, but McGovern says that service means more than that. Philanthropy is not just something you do for yourself because it feels good or a necessary means of meeting the growing needs that Mayers describes.

McGovern says that he believes there is a responsibility incumbent upon his Sigma Nu brothers to use their privilege to help those in need, especially if they’re only a few blocks away.

“There’s an obligation as decent human beings to help people that are less fortunate than you, and I think we’re in a great position to do that.”

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