When I first encountered Community Service-Learning (CSL), I was a fresh first year student, who walked around campus as if it were a sacred land of endless possibilities. For the first time, I would be in charge of my education — and in turn — my own life.
No more math! No more chemistry! I could do whatever I wanted, and take whichever classes intrigued me. And that is how “Community Service-Learning 100” ended up in my shopping cart of courses.
“You’re paying $600 for a course on volunteering?” my friends laughed, when I had shown them my schedule.
Regardless, I carried on, still struck with deep romanticism for the autonomy that university life entailed. My CSL 100 class consisted of 20-something students, and was tucked away in the Humanities Centre. The setup reminded me a lot of grade school, especially since all my other courses were in lecture halls packed with hundreds of students whose names and faces blurred into a haze.
In CSL, my knowledge was backed up by real-life engagement through my community placement.
I quickly learned that CSL was not simply “volunteering,” but that there was an entire pedagogy founded on literature and praxis that addressed the questions I was not used to being asked. We challenged our privileges and pitfalls. We spoke of the ethics of volunteering, and whether traditional educational institutions were actually preparing us for the real world.
Unlike my other courses, in CSL, my knowledge was backed up by real-life engagement through my community placement. I could contribute to discussions through my lived experiences, and I thrived.
During my first year, I flourished. I had a genuine love for learning, I had new friends and I was acing all my classes. Suddenly, it became very real to me that, if I kept my grades up, I could do whatever I wanted to do. If I just focused a little harder in school, and take practical courses, I could have a worriless future ahead of me.
Slowly, the awe-struck first-year me was lost in an accumulation of deadlines, exams and anxiety. Where I used to believe that university would give me liberation, I found myself memorizing textbook after textbook, unable to retain or enjoy what I was learning.
Taking breaks to reflect is pivotal in rebuilding and reaffirming the life you want for yourself.
My sole identity in class was my seven-digit student number. And that’s all I became: a student, another face among a crowd of more interesting and more intelligent faces. I had no voice, and no original thought. Whenever I spoke, it was citing a passage from an assigned reading. Whenever I wrote a paper, I imagined what my professor would want me to say. The real-life praxis that I had learned in CSL was nothing like the abstract theories in my “practical courses” —ones that I had no way of relating to.
In my third year, I lost a dear friend to suicide. I later found out that the academic and societal pressures to be groomed to think and to be a specific way had crippled him. His death made me seriously reflect on my own mental health, and I decided that I didn’t want to just be a textbook student anymore. I wanted to thrive in my classes, and put into practice what I was learning. That’s when I found my way back to CSL, in the same Humanities building and with the same instructor, just two years later.
Coming back to CSL has been the best decision I have made through my undergrad. Not only did it give me back my voice, it also taught me one of the most valuable lessons that I have learned: taking breaks to reflect, whether it’s on your own mental health or the quality of education you want to receive, is pivotal in rebuilding and reaffirming the life you want for yourself.
It’s okay to enjoy your undergrad, and despite what your friends might say, I encourage you to shop around for courses that strike your fancy. Some may disappoint you, but others may surprise you and change the direction of your life, the way CSL did for me.
Student Voices is a WOA blog feature that presents the experiences and viewpoints of current Arts students. Through their posts, you’ll experience the creativity and passion of our students as they present glimpses into student life. The views and opinions expressed within these posts are solely those of the authors.