Over the last 6 years I’ve spent much of my time considering SSU’s proposition to potential students: My main goal was to find the intersection of two things: Firstly, what are we good at? What do we love to do? What do we do that nobody else can do? Secondly, what do high school kids want? In particular, what do they want from post secondary education? Where these two things meet indicates what we can offer them.
One thing we all agreed that we’ve been good at is transformation. Taking young people who’ve just left home and helping them see the world and face its issues and think about their place in it. When we rethought our mission statement a few years ago, we ended up with humble, creative engagement with our world being at the core of it.
All of our grads end up in a community of one sort or another, and our dream is that they engage with those communities with humility, compassion and initiative. We hope that they do that, but this time last year as we considered this next chapter in SSU’s we wondered if there was room for improvement in how well we prepare our students for this kind of engagement. Instead of just hoping that they engage once they’ve left, could we introduce them to engagement while they’re here?
This is an interesting question for me personally, because I have had to rethink engagement myself over the years, and then work hard at it. I grew up with community engagement simply meaning evangelism. Engagement with the world happened as a means to an end, which was the saving of souls. The only engagement I ever really did, had an agenda – I was always trying to get to the conversation about my faith. My mission was to engage my community with one sole purpose – conversion.
There was every now and then a service element to it; my church community would occasionally serve the poor or the homeless, but even that was tainted with this well-meaning ulterior motive: if we show them God’s love in a practical way, maybe they’ll come to church. I remember being a teenager and thinking, “Why would I ever want any of my school friends to come to church?” but that wasn’t the point. Church services were the point of entry into God’s Kingdom – if we could just get them to come to a church service and sing our songs and hear our sermons, surely they would join us.
I don’t think like that anymore ?. I recall the immense and life-changing relief of finally feeling free from this obligation to save my neighbor. Out of the blue I accidentally had a conversation with a fisherman that lived across from my house, and ended up helping him fix his Land Rover. I had no thought of trying to introduce him to church or Jesus. The only good news I shared with him was that I knew how to fix his truck. For the first time in my life I had genuinely, and helpfully, engaged with my community. Engaging was something I’d always dreaded, because of the intense obligation I was burdened with, but talking to this guy and working on his car was easy. I was just being nice. I was just being me.
I guess some people do this kind of engagement naturally. For me it took practice, and still does. It’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten older and less insecure. But I’m still pretty selfish and a lot of the time I can’t be bothered. But what I know now is that caring about the people in our communities is about the highest calling I can think of. I’d argue that if we genuinely offered ourselves to our communities as active participants, adding our gifts and skills and experience to the local mix, we’d be fulfilling our main purpose as human beings.
So as well as being something that I think SSU could do well, I believe community engagement has a strong moral imperative to it as well. It’s just the right thing to do! But it’s hard. Every one of us grew up in some kind of bubble. To me, our community engagement program should be a bubble burster – it should break people out of their tiny world bubble and dump them in a wider world, just like our travel program does. You can’t do that in a classroom alone. Most of our middle class students have only been around their parents and their peers at high school, and have never met real poor people. How many of our grads might be better at engaging with real people in their communities if we break the ice early in their development as independent adults?
SSU has always had a missional outlook, preparing people to be useful adults with purpose, but we need to be constantly thinking about how to better inspire our students to serve their communities when they leave. With this latest generation, I think it is essential that we figure out how to help get our students out of their privileged heads and self-centred anxieties, and into a worldview of gratitude and compassion. One could do an inspiring fireside chat about it, or a class, but nothing beats diving right in and doing something practical. There’s nothing quite like being faced with the stark reality of how other people live. It shakes us up. It makes us think about ourselves and our privilege, our bubbles. And just maybe it inspires us to make change, to serve, to engage with compassion.
That’s my dream for this program. I love that our students will also get real work experience, and I love that they’ll reduce their debts by getting paid to work, but for me the deepest value lies in exposing them to real community needs, to life without all its fullness, and empowering them to feel like they can do something about it.
Jeremy Barham – Interim President