Column | Feb. 24
It’s no secret that Princeton students like to be involved. Admittedly, the number of student groups on campus is impressive given the size of the student body. There are 38 varsity sports, 35 club sports and over 350 student-led groups for a student body of just over 5,000. This demonstrates great commitment from such a dedicated and goal-oriented student body. At least, that’s what I thought. It’s hard to believe that students can be so involved because in reality, they are not. In reality, looking deeper into many of the groups on campus reveals that many are poorly organized and have no real value beyond resume building.
I am not trying to pick on extracurricular activities. Many groups on campus, especially the performance groups, produce and do amazing things. But if you love doing something, devoting time to it isn’t a chore. And for every legitimate group on campus, there are a handful of duds operating with little to no purpose other than to give students something to do. Have a great idea that would look impressive on a resume for medical school or that dream job you want? Great. Reserve a room in Frist, gather a handful of freshmen, meet once a week, and proceed to get absolutely nothing done. I’ve scouted my fair share of volunteer organizations only to find they are inefficiently run and little gets done. The members do the bare minimum of going to meetings, but the plans almost never come to fruition. Then again, who could expect anything more? It’s simply unreasonable to expect students to be able to devote a productive amount of time to five or six different organizations on top of academics.
Luckily, you don’t have to be productive. There is little to no accountability for maintaining productivity. Unless you are seriously invested in the productivity of the group, what is your motivation for contributing? This is not a job. There is no money at stake. There is nobody looking over your shoulder or checking up on your progress, and the result is apathy. I’m not entirely sure if outside accountability is even possible. That is the definition of volunteering: You contribute what you want to contribute. Ideally, you care enough about what you are doing to want to make a significant impact. In the real world, organizations that matter, the ones that truly make a difference, are huge endeavors that require the time, effort and perseverance of full-time jobs. No matter what you set out to do, commit yourself to it, or don’t bother doing it at all. Wendy Kopp ’89 did not start Teach for America as an afterthought, thinking it would land her a job at Goldman Sachs. She poured her life into a vision she believed would change the world. Unfortunately, like most things at the University, volunteer organizations have become a competition. But because there is no way to gauge your value to an organization, the motivation isn’t to make a real contribution. Instead, it’s a game of participation.
Devoting yourself to one cause that you personally support just isn’t enough. “You mean you’re only helping to teach kids in India how to read? But what about saving the African rainforests?” When you stretch your already limited time across as many things as you can think of, the actual value you offer to each individual group shrinks. At 3 a.m., when you find yourself split between a chemistry test the next day and a presentation on a project you care little about, what do you suppose is going to win in the end? I would love to see a change in the dynamic of student participation. If there is a cause that you feel passionate about and want to pursue, I fully support it. In fact, I encourage it. Given enough effort, you have the ability to change the world if you are truly passionate. Who knows? Maybe it will even get you into Harvard Medical School.
Christian Wawrzonek is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.