Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss wrote the following article that was published in the Morning Call newspaper Jan. 3, 2011.
On a Saturday in early December, more than 200 Lafayette College students and members of the community gathered in Kirby Field House to string together thousands of colorful paper cranes to help an Easton boy suffering from a rare form of cancer spread a message of hope. The third-floor lounge was filled with activity as students and seniors threaded needle and string through origami birds to create mobiles that will eventually be sent to every pediatric cancer hospital in the country.
Witnessing the magic of this event, I couldn’t help but feel humbled by the selflessness and optimism of the boy, 10-year-old David Heard, and proud of our students who understand they are part of a larger community and strive to make a difference all year long.
Since August, Lafayette students have spent 5,256 hours volunteering at Northampton County Prison, the Easton Area Community Center, Third Street Alliance and other local nonprofit organizations. Between classes, sports and club activities, they tutor inmates, mentor school children and cook meals at women’s shelters. They plant trees in urban neighborhoods, work with adults who have Down syndrome and sleep in huts on the Quad each November to raise awareness about hunger and homelessness.
Our commitment to our community continues through summer when a group of first-year students arrive early to help with renovation projects in the West Ward Neighborhood, facilitate a summer camp for underprivileged children and visit residents of nursing homes.
At Lafayette, service is an important part of our college culture. The “real world” is not some place that exists outside our campus. Rather, it dwells at the heart of our mission — to educate the whole student. Our faculty does an excellent job of opening our students’ minds, testing their skills and challenging their prevailing views of the world. But empathy and responsibility are also worth teaching and what better way to do that than by encouraging students to step outside their comfort zone and immerse themselves in a different environment while helping others. This takes courage but can lead to an evolution of consciousness that can form the foundation of a noble and purposeful life.
Too often students’ college experiences are defined by the insulation of the campus and their experiences within. How can we ask our future leaders to create policies addressing our most troubling issues if they don’t have a firm grasp of their root causes? Giving students an opportunity to tutor inmates, for example, teaches them far more about the outcomes of economic disparity or psychological trauma than a lecture or a chapter of a book.
The same can be said for homelessness, poverty and domestic violence. Textbooks can only go so far in explaining the hard and complicated truths of a society filled with disparity and injustice.
That’s why courses in almost every one of the college’s departments have a community-based learning and research component that combines academic theory with work in the field. For example, accounting students prepare income tax returns for low-income senior citizens, a Mothering in America class works with local teenage moms and our Technology Clinic brings together small groups of students to solve community problems, such as storm-water runoff and the creation of more welcoming spaces in Easton’s West Ward neighborhood.
We encourage our students to venture beyond campus and meet people who may not have had the same privilege and opportunities. For some it’s a reality check and an eye-opener, a reminder that regardless of our socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity or age, we share much in common. In this awareness, great leaders are born.
Our students pursue an education because they want to make something of themselves and to have an impact on their world. At Lafayette we know it is not enough to educate the mind. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the end we must all decide whether to follow the open road of altruism or the narrow path of selfishness.
Lafayette can’t make that decision for its students, but we can point the way.