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Does Mandatory Community Service In School Do More Harm Than Good?

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I hate to admit it, but I have never felt motivated enough to volunteer. When my school mandated it, I became even less inclined to do so. Reading in the New York Times about how Emily Fried an 18-year-old, who had done 350 hours of community service proclaimed that her habit of performing social service had been formed because of a mandatory program I was surprised. “If it was not mandatory, I never would have looked into doing it”, said Emily in the article.

Representational image. Volunteers at a children’s home. (Photo: Salaam Balak Trust/Facebook)

For me, being forced to help others felt unnatural and counterintuitive. Because no one had explained the benefits, I did not understand the impact I could have on a low-income student just by spending an hour with them every week and so dismissed the activity altogether. Curious, I talked to friends and got a mixed response. So, I dug into the research to see what that had to say.

What Are The Positives?

A large body of research has shown that engagement in adolescence is an important indicator for civic engagement in adulthood (Austin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999; Beck & Jennings, 1982; Hall, McKeown, & Roberts, 2001; Johnson, Beebe). Thus, mandatory volunteerism can impact civic responsibility significantly, but only under certain conditions.

Specifically, high school volunteers who recalled the experience as positive, and volunteers who committed to an organization for at least a year were significantly more likely to engage in subsequent volunteering and to have a more positive attitude toward volunteering (S. Mark Pancer Steven D. Brown Ailsa Henderson Kimberly Ellis-Hale, 2007)

Importantly, such activities can help in building leadership skills that prepare students to perform in college and in their careers. Research has also shown that on average, students involved in any sort of community service graduate at a higher rate than those who are not. A study by found that volunteers have a 27% higher likelihood of finding a job after being out of work than non-volunteers.

People who volunteer also learn how to build relationships. In a survey conducted by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), 50% of the people found a friend while volunteering.

What Are The drawbacks?

Firstly, if youth reflect on their experience and do not find any value in participation other than to fulfill the mandatory requirements (Stukas et al., 1999), then mandatory service may deter student’s intent to engage in future service.

Secondly, the type of service the student is required to do may affect their experience and their relationship with the service. Several different studies have found that experiences that enable students to make friends, to build skills, to reflect on social problems, and to cultivate a sense of purpose and enjoyment are more successful and lead to greater intentions to volunteer in the future. (Bennett, 2009; Henderson et al., 2007; Metz, McLellan, & Youniss, 2003; Reinders & Youniss, 2006). However, many programs are not designed with this in mind and often involve a lot of administrative tasks.

Thirdly, and very importantly, choice matters for students who are initially uninclined to volunteer. “Students who initially felt it unlikely that they would freely volunteer had significantly lower intentions after being required to serve than after being given a choice. Those who initially felt more likely to freely volunteer were relatively unaffected by a mandate to serve as compared with a choice.” (Arthur A. Stukas, Mark Snyder, E. Gil Clary, 1999). Thus, we need to give more choices to students who are less inclined to volunteer.

Fourthly, studies have found that “High school volunteering that does not involve a sustained commitment to an organization does not increase the likelihood that a student will volunteer or be socially or politically engaged after high school.” (S. Mark Pancer Steven D. Brown Ailsa Henderson Kimberly Ellis-Hale, 2007). Community service programs had almost no effect on infrequent or one-time-only volunteers. “In shorter, mandatory programs, it is unlikely that a strong relationship between the person who is doing the volunteering and the one who is receiving will emerge. Such bonds tend to motivate people to return making the case for longer programs stronger.”

Another drawback is how the hours are required to be performed. I was supposed to volunteer during October and my mid-terms started in November, making me less interested in volunteering.

Representational Image

Increasing the duration of the volunteering program will create strong bonds with the volunteer and the ones being helped.

What Should We Do?

So, if we are to continue with mandatory community service programs how should we improve outcomes?

Firstly, we need to give students real choices. We need to ask teenagers what issues they view as being important to address and work with them to find the right community service experiences.

Secondly, we can increase the duration of the programs. Instead of hours, we must focus on monthly, quarterly, or half-yearly programs that will create strong bonds between the volunteer and the person who is being helped. We can also continue to provide teens with opportunities to engage in service after their requirement is fulfilled.  At the same time, we must focus on the quality of the volunteering so that students feel that their work is meaningful and not just administrative.

Thirdly, we need to show students how their volunteering has made a difference in the lives of others or had had a positive influence on the community as a whole. Research has shown that volunteering becomes a positive experience when students had a greater awareness of the challenges faced by the community they were helping and had a greater connection with members in the community. We also need to talk to teens about their community service experiences so they can reflect on social problems and form their own beliefs about their experiences (Yates & Youniss, 1996).

Finally, we must also focus on how the student volunteers themselves benefit from the experience in terms of emotional fulfillment, self-improvement, and career development. Ultimately, it’s a two-way relationship and we must design programs with this in mind if we want to develop responsible young citizens.

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