Since September I have regularly gone into the Lewiston District Court to work with Maine’s Volunteer Lawyers Project. A couple of other Bates students and I help to provide family law advice for low-income residents by dealing with in-take and determining eligibility. Honestly, it is a great feeling to make a difference in a community that has become your adopted home.
At the end of a particularly busy day there was one person left. We had warned him that he would probably not be seen, but he decided to stick around just in case. This man struck up a conversation with me, something that does not usually happen. He told me that he was an immigrant from Djibouti and that he had lived in Tennessee prior to coming to Lewiston. I asked him if he ever missed his home abroad, and his response was, “Yes, but I am an American now.” He went on to tell me that he had just gained his citizenship. This led to a larger discussion, which involved religion and American politics—both at the national level and with regards to Lewiston’s recent mayoral race. During our talk, he told me he was Muslim and I told him I was Jewish. Our conversation ended when the attorney called him in. As we both stood up he extended his arm. As I shook his hand he looked at me and said, “See, a Muslim and a Jew, just two Americans.” He then followed the attorney. He really caught me off guard, especially considering the racial, religious, and political tensions within not just Lewiston, but the entire nation.
As I comprehended this simple, yet profound statement, I realized that this experience, and others like it, are why community engagement is so important—you experience personal growth while helping to make a difference.
Batesies need to begin to utilize the community engagement resources that surround us. The Lewiston/Auburn area is a community that is often in need of our services, but more importantly, it is a community that openly welcomes us into their lives and homes. Bates students are an untapped source of potential for growth in L/A. On the other hand, as my experience shows, Bates students have a lot to gain from volunteering. Finally, it is important to get away from campus and the sheltered and privileged environment it affords us. As Ellis Obrien, a freshman who volunteers by tutoring at Lewiston High School said, “I’ve become a better person and gained perspective on what it means to contribute to society. I feel like an essential part of the Bates experience is spending time in Lewiston, and I believe the best way to get to know your community is to volunteer and serve with the locals.” Perhaps Bates should have a community engagement requirement.
For anyone looking to get involved with community engagement, the Harward Center for Community Partnership is a great place to start. The Harward Center offers great community engagement opportunities for all class years. The Bonner Leadership Program is a way for incoming freshman to get involved and stay involved with community service during their time at Bates. The Bates Community Liaison and the Community Outreach Fellows programs offer opportunities for upperclassmen to get involved in community engagement in ways that are related to their existing interests. Perhaps most importantly, the Harward Center offers many different forms of community-engaged learning and miscellaneous volunteer opportunities for students who want to get involved but already have a packed schedule. The Harward Center even offers grants for faculty, staff, and students during the academic year and the summer. If someone is interested in community engagement the Harward Center makes it easy for him or her to get involved.