In the wake of the pandemic and social justice movement, an ongoing conversation has surged to the forefront about whether community service is a privilege that can perpetuate inequitable volunteer opportunities. The time is ripe for college admissions officers and service advocates to recalibrate community service into true community engagement, even for students constrained by time and finances. By tapping into student passions and finding methods for inclusion, all students can reap the benefits of meaningful community service.

Community Service Meets Inclusion

Since colleges began elevating the importance of community service in their applications, “very few conversations about volunteering with a high school student do not end in ‘and it looks good on your college application,’ ” says William Sichel, director of admissions at New York University. The challenge now is merging community service into inclusion efforts, which requires broadening the idea of community service beyond what’s traditionally considered volunteerism. “Communities, cultures, and countries have different definitions of what volunteering and community service are,” Sichel says. “In some cultures, community service is seen as a given, as part of life. In others, community service is an unrecognizable topic.”

That shift in perspective places students’ community involvement “within their lived experience and cultural context,” he says. “Using service activities as an important part of our admissions process would be equivalent to giving students in communities where volunteerism is expected, and who tend to be privileged, an automatic advantage in our decision-making process.”

The social justice awakening underway heightens the urgency of reframing community service because misperceptions linger that a long list of service hours and organizations generates more points on a college application. “Some students have to go home, and they have heavy family responsibilities,” says Calvin Wise, director of recruitment at Johns Hopkins University. “They don’t have the luxury of community service.”

In its purest form, service is “you making a meaningful impact in somebody else’s life,” Wise says. That impact can be found in traditional service, holding jobs in the community or, as Wise himself experienced, helping manage the home and care for siblings while guardians work.

The adults in students’ lives, including NHS advisers, now have an assignment: guiding students to see the impact of their service, whether they perform that service in the community or at home. In terms of equity, adults need to ensure students understand that they can make an impact in a lot of different ways.

Service is a form of leadership, and good leadership always involves service. “Students need to understand that when you’re doing service, you’re leading, but many of them don’t,” says Gil Villanueva, vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “They think leadership is being the president, is being the captain. You don’t need to have a title to be a leader.”

To make community service more equitable and accessible, we need to shift the mindset of how students and schools define service. According to Villanueva, putting community service into five categories—community mindedness, civic mindedness, academic interests, personal interests, and service experience—gives students the framework for reconsidering their service in terms of impact instead of hours, or community mindset instead of community service.

The Privilege Question

For Wise at Johns Hopkins, students from underprivileged backgrounds aren’t necessarily precluded from performing service, but their service activities may look different. While they may not go on a service trip to Central America to help build water wells, they may be doing something in their neighborhood or school that’s equally impactful.

Information, resources, and an empathetic ear are key to helping students with time and financial constraints find service opportunities. To Villanueva, “it all begins with education. National Honor Society advisers are educators, and they’re extending good information to young people to give them opportunities to continue to grow. It’s about extending them the kind of information that will allow them to take the next steps.”

NHS, National Student Council, and Youth Service America (YSA) offer extensive resources to support students and advisers looking not just for project ideas but step-by-step guides on injecting impact into community service. “We want to try to avoid students chasing hours because a lot of times that’s what they’re doing,” says Scott Ganske, vice president of partnerships for YSA. “The ultimate goal is for them to be lifelong volunteers.”

In this context, the traditional concepts behind community service, such as joining a one-day project to paint a homeless shelter, can be seen as gateways to more meaningful service. Expanding opportunities to earn credit hours can include activities beyond just physically showing up for a service event. For example, Ganske explains that hours should be earned for time spent investigating community needs and planning service projects, which can facilitate a shift in ideas of volunteerism and benefit those with time and financial constraints.

During the pandemic and with the increase in digital community organizing, Ganske found that many community college students appreciated the chance to work on their projects virtually. The students discovered that advocacy and awareness projects adapted well to virtual means. In one class, students focused on U.N. Sustainable Development Goals—relating global issues such as hunger to local needs and then presenting their findings to audiences.

While internet access remains a final hurdle, “we actually found that virtual projects opened the door to students who were never interested in serving,” Ganske says. Students accrued hours for their projects, and they were way more likely to collaborate, use creativity, and tap into critical thinking skills to identify and research an issue.

Fostering genuine partnerships and open communication between schools and community organizations helps to uncover more areas of mutual interest where students of any means or abilities can contribute. “Organizations will create tailor-made opportunities for you,” Ganske says. “You just have to ask.” Recruiting students to research and interview the organizations gives students themselves a chance to see and identify needs and create helpful projects that even the organization might not have conceived of on its own, such as writing social media posts.

Harnessing Passion

Wise sees true civic engagement among students who find their passions and discover their voices. “Gen Z, they’re the activist generation,” he says, adding that “the most successful students are civically engaged.”

To help students find their voice, high schools can implement the “life design” career-counseling model developed at such universities as Johns Hopkins. “How do we help shift students’ understanding of how they find themselves fulfilled?” Wise asks. “As an adult, that might include doing service. It’s about the holistic development of students and finding purpose and fulfillment within themselves.”

Tapping into the issues that motivate youth is a powerful tool, indeed. Points of Light—an international nonprofit organization focused on volunteerism—pointed to mental health, poverty, environment, and race relations as the top four issues of concern to youth during the pandemic-social justice year of 2020.

Prompting students to reflect on the positive effect of their service can help them understand and express the impact they are having. “I talk to so many students in their senior year who say this is the first time they’ve had to reflect on these things,” Wise says. “To me, it’s a travesty that students are not reflecting on their lives until they are asked to apply to college.”

NHS and NatStuCo programs and resources offer opportunities for young people to consider their career and community service paths and their impact. To incorporate families into the conversation about community engagement, the discussion can begin with how their children can be happy and successful. Sharing data and research helps—such as showing families that the soft skills that employers demand are the same skills that are developed through service.

Busy high school advisers can enlist mentors, volunteers, family, and coaches for conversations with students and their families. “The parent may be really interested in the athletics piece,” Villanueva says. “They may not come to every PTA meeting, but they’re at the games. How’s the coach talking about these issues and opportunities?”

According to Ganske, YSA is seeing a tremendous amount of youth unable to participate in service due to financial barriers, lack of transportation, or commitments to jobs and family. Partner organizations often don’t realize that many students face barriers to participating in traditional projects until they are explicitly told so. Share that news, and the organization can customize projects that support their operations without asking for undue sacrifices from students. Advisers can also work closely with school faculty and staff to incorporate service projects into classrooms. The student studying historical famines can research the impact of hunger locally, or statistics students can analyze data on homelessness in the community.

Leveraging the extracurricular activities and spaces where students spend their time is another effective tool. If a student plays football, can they organize a Saturday morning football clinic for youngsters? “The spark is that thing students are passionate about,” Ganske says. “When students focus on their sparks, they focus on what they’re already doing, and they don’t see it as a constraint. Advisers are doing that—being an adult champion and asking students to think about the things they’re passionate about and merge them with a volunteer experience.”

Step by Step

Students themselves are powerful tools for inclusion. Student leaders reflect on their own service efforts and expand their worldview by convening with diverse peers. To help students bridge the divides typically plaguing high schools, YSA and NHS planning guides and other resources provide detailed tips on working collaboratively—perhaps bringing together students skilled at social media, planning, or research into groups of peers with shared interests and passions.

Student leaders who engage peers who are not traditionally asked to serve “are truly making a difference,” Ganske says. “We have to stop thinking about service from an individual perspective and think, instead, about rallying the troops.”

YSA’s “copilot checklist” for gauging a potential project’s feasibility and impact asks whether a proposed project is doable based on available time and resources. Where resources aren’t available, students should ask, “How they can be obtained?” and “How can all students achieve equity and access in participation, without imposing demands on their time or finances?” When they can answer such questions, students end up feeling more empowered—like they did a project that was meaningful and had an actual outcome they wanted to achieve and can actually identify why they did it.

A Changing Landscape

Membership in programs requiring community service, such as NHS or Key Club, can serve important purposes for students and communities but are not must-haves for the college admissions process, says New York University’s Sichel. “We would always view a student’s engagement within the context of what is available to them and the communities in which they live.”

As advisers work with students and community groups to create service opportunities, they should think about the outcomes for both the community and the student’s development, he says. “They should not worry about ‘how it looks on a college application,’ though using the college admissions process as a motivating factor for getting involved in the beginning may not always be a bad thing.”

Even before students join NHS or NatStuCo, advisers should find opportunities to have conversations with students about avoiding a check-box mindset. Those talks create opportunities to encourage reflection on how students can impact their communities, no matter what form their service takes. “If you want to prepare students for being contributing members of society, civically engaged, gainfully employed, and leaders in their field, we have to start the communication [about service] much earlier on,” Wise says. “It’s less about the numbers and more about what the numbers mean.” —

M. Diane McCormick is a writer based in Harrisburg, PA.