Mission Accomplished?  Maybe Not Anymore

Over the last decade, the media has bombarded parents with the message that students must show leadership to gain admission to college.  One democratic way to show that quality – participating in an activity not demanding athletic or political talent – is to perform community service work.  Any student can work at a community food bank or tutor children.

Many schools have added a community service requirement for graduation.  The “how to get into college” articles go one step further, portraying community service as a prized commodity which must be accrued and then displayed to admissions officers.  The method of display is often the college essay, where the student’s devotion is worked into the narrative.  Sometimes it is the narrative, as when students perform their community service overseas.  An overseas “volunteer experience” can pack enough activity to fuel a 600-word essay.

Private schools have been offering overseas trips designed to tick off this (perceived) box.  The trips typically last a few weeks.  The destination is a developing nation, and the itinerary includes both cultural immersion and some volunteer activity designed to improve the community.  Religious private schools are active in this area (made easier because many religious groups have missions abroad), but secular schools also offer these opportunities.

The idea is that if community service is a worthy goal, what better way to convince colleges that the student shares that goal than by going to “where the poverty is,” a developing country, and combining service with cultural education?  The college prep industry has magnified this trend by offering summer programs expanding on this theme.

However, for every revolution in college admissions, there seemingly comes a reformation; we may have just seen its beginning with an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times.  Bruni roams the college education beat at the paper, and just published the bestseller Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.  His column this week decries the “mission trip.”  See “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/to-get-to-harvard-go-to-haiti.html?ref=opinion&_r=0).

Bruni quotes a student who passed up such a trip in favor of doing his bit at home.

“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa.”  He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” explained.  The captions tend to say something along the lines of, “This cutie made it so hard to leave.”

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

“It rubs me the wrong way,” Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it “if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.”

The article states that some admissions officers have become annoyed by what Bruni labels “drive-by charity work.”  One officer reports:

“Often they come to the same conclusion: People in other parts of the world who have no money are happier than we are!” she told me. “That is eye-opening to some students. But it can be a dangerous thing to write about, because it’s hard to rescue the truth from that cliché.”

Bruni also writes that some students try to demonstrate leadership by starting their own nonprofit groups.  They tick both the charity and “entrepreneur” boxes that way.  This sounds so much like my old stomping ground, Silicon Valley, that if it isn’t happening there I’ll be a bit disappointed.

Community service will probably always be a component of the college application, and there will always be questions about what form of community service, and how much of it, your student should be performing.  We will leave this more complex issue for another time.

But for now, suffice to say that Bruni’s article appears to herald a change in how college admissions officers will regard “mission service trips” abroad.  For those who are parenting or counseling students considering such trips, caution is in order.  Unless, of course, the motivation for a trip is purely service.  The test for that is easy:  will the trip be (modestly) omitted from the student’s college application?

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