Nov 15


I’ve spent most of my life growing up in State College at this point, and Pittsburgh is one of the nearby cities I’ve visited most. I’ve been coming to Pittsburgh since I was eleven, but the point that it became most influential for me was when I was just finding my place in high school. Interestingly enough, the lessons Pittsburgh would have to teach me seemed to change with the city as it developed and revitalized itself, and each visit gave me something new to think about–usually something that I would take to heart for years to come. Now I’ve returned to Pittsburgh again, this time with the Presidential Leadership Academy, and learned even more invaluable lessons, each more beneficial than the last. I thought for my blog this week that I really wanted to go back and examine everything I’ve learned from my time at Pittsburgh–not just the things we did on this trip–and how it relates to the city’s recent resurgence.

So without further ado…

In my sophomore year of high school I joined a Presbyterian youth group. I didn’t belong to the church or really any sort of religion at all, but the club was all-inclusive and full of several of my friends, so I enjoyed it. During every spring break, this group of about fifty or so teenagers and ten adult mentors would drive down to Pittsburgh to do service in the community. We slept on the floor of a church in sleeping bags, getting up early in the mornings so we could go repaint the walls of a homeless shelter, or clean out an old building that was being repurposed, or make food for people who because of factors beyond their control had been forced out into the street. It was during this time–not long ago at all–that Pittsburgh was still recovering in many areas. But the main reason the city has recently been doing so well is because of the insane amount of volunteers who have devoted their time to making things better. I am proud to have done my part during those few years, as I am extremely proud and impressed by the people we met who work in the Braddock Carnegie Library. These people have spent countless hours on this project for very little pay, solely for the purpose of making their community better. As a person who participates in community service on a very frequent basis, I could recognize the expressions of quiet satisfaction the tour guides wore on their faces–not just because they were doing a fantastic job, but because they knew what they were doing was the right thing, and that it was helping people. Upon arriving to college, I assumed Pittsburgh had already taught me all it ever would about what it meant to serve a community, and indeed what I learned during those three spring trips was invaluable and remains extremely influential for me. But this trip to Braddock showed me that Pittsburgh, thankfully, wasn’t done with me yet.

Before this trip, all my educational experiences in Pittsburgh had involved recovery, rebuilding and recuperation. This weekend proved to go beyond that, becoming more than anything a lesson in innovation. Practically everywhere we went, speakers were encouraging us to try new things, to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and of course showing us how much good could come from that. I think the lesson that perfectly summarized all of those innovative strategies was only mentioned in passing. At Deloitte, the presented us with the “Platinum Rule:” Treat others the way they want to be treated. It is the same concept as the Golden Rule, but this new one (new innovation you might say) recognizes the diversity in a population, that not everyone will want the same thing as you. This might be because of a person’s business chemistry, but it could also be because of their background, experiences, culture, or any other part of them that might be different than ours. I feel this concept is what lead to most–if not all–of the innovations we saw during our trip. Google listened to what it’s employees wanted, and created possibly the most innovative and creative corporate working space ever to help them get their best work done. Deloitte used the concept when examining people’s personalities, and adapted their leading and following styles in order to gel with their colleagues. And the workers at the Braddock Library used it when they examined the community to see what they could do to make the old library useful and valuable to the surrounding community.

So ultimately I feel that being a leader and an innovator has everything to do with looking outside of yourself and considering others and the world around you, and putting them first. That’s what Pittsburgh has taught me through it’s wonderful displays of service, community, and fellowship. I can’t wait to see what this city has in store for me on my next visit.

Aug 15

Lose Yourself in Service

When people ask me what I do in my free time, the first thing out of my mouth is almost invariably, “community service.” I’ve been volunteering through various organizations since I was six years old. First, it was Girl Scouts, which I stuck with for eleven years, going so far as to earn my Gold Award my senior year of high school. When I was fifteen I joined a group called FISH, a Presbyterian youth group which was open to all faiths and which made yearly trips down to Pittsburgh in order to help local volunteers with the homeless situation there. Now in college, I’m a member of a student org called ServeState, which has me doing more volunteering than I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, I’ve been elected service coordinator for this semester, meaning it’s my responsibility to plan and run the multitude of service events our group is involved in each week.

Outside of school, this work dominates my life; between planning each venture, participating in the actual events, and following up on our group’s performance, I spend around ten hours each week focussed solely on community service. It makes keeping up with school work a constant battle (I’m taking nineteen credits and two honors-level classes), and my social life outside my club rarely extends beyond some nice chats, which occur during power-walks between whatever projects I’m working on at the time.

Sometimes it can be beyond exhausting. But I wouldn’t trade out of this responsibility if you paid me. Here’s why:

I know what I’m about to say is bound to sound abominably cliche, but I’ll run the risk. Service has changed my life. It has so in a multitude of ways. I’m sure you’ve heard of people returning from mission trips or volunteering excursions with stories about their “new lust for life” and how “their eyes were opened to the world.” Kind of melodramatic, right? Wrong. In my experience, the act of serving those less fortunate than you does just that: opens you up to a fuller, healthier life. But this time, you don’t have to take a starry-eyed volunteer’s word for it. This time, I come bearing proof.

 In 2013, a study released by UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute has shown volunteering to be linked to better mental, emotional, and even physical health. “These findings,” the study states, “show that the benefits of volunteering help strengthen communities and have real, measurable health benefits for the people who volunteer” (UnitedHealth Group). The study sorts these positive benefits into four categories.

The first is, quite generally, health. People who volunteer regularly simply report feeling healthier and happier (Optum Health). I can’t help but relate. A hard day of service–whether it’s washing dishes at a soup kitchen, doing yard work for a nonprofit, or painting the walls of a homeless shelter–might tire you out, but the exercise always leaves behind a satiated feeling. Not only did you just get a good workout, but you also experience the added feeling of accomplishment that comes with helping to make a community stronger.

This in particular may assist in explaining the second benefit: lower levels of stress. Those who volunteer often report a better ability to manage and minimize stress (UnitedHealth Group). This comes as no surprise, especially when you consider how exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the “feel good” hormones (WebMD). But even people who participate in forms of service with no physical activity involved exhibit less signs of stress than those who don’t volunteer at all. And it probably has a lot to do with the next benefit of service.

Volunteers often feel a deeper connection to their communities and to those around them, often leading them to derive a sense of purpose from their work. This purpose almost inevitably leads to greater self confidence, as well as an enthusiastic work ethic (HelpGuide.org). I know the purpose I gained while volunteering throughout my childhood has influenced me in particular, pushing me to pursue my current career goal of working to improve the poorer communities of North Africa. The feeling of pride and pleasure one feels after visibly boosting the quality of someone’s life, even just a little, is enough to keep you coming back. Each experience builds on one another until service becomes a lifestyle, and the things you learn throughout your work are firmly ingrained in your personal identity.

The things you learn as you volunteer have a lot to do with the fourth benefit, which is engagement. Simply by working with many different organizations, volunteers tend to learn a lot more about their community than those who do not (HelpGuide.org). And some of the things you learn can be quite enlightening. I often talk about my trips to Pittsburgh with FISH as one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. As we worked with the network of homeless shelters throughout the city, I remember talking to several of the residents. I learned a lot about them–how they lost their homes, what their childhood was like, and how they were getting by now when they had so little. I learned that most of them had worked, and continue to work, extremely hard, and that they still had dreams for a better future–a sharp contrast to the American stereotype that casts homeless people as lazy freeloaders mooching off of taxpayer money. Had I not volunteered in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I ever would have understood the extent of the disadvantage some experience in our country, simply by being born into the wrong neighborhood.

There are more benefits to service work. I’m sure I could write a book about it, if I had the time. But a few things are certain:

Service makes you healthier. Service makes you happier. Service makes you more knowledgeable about the world around you, introduces you to some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, and reacquaints us to one of the most simple pleasures of being human; watching your community blossom from the work you did with your own two hands. So try it for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find that those who lose themselves in service are the ones who have the most to gain.

“Exercise and Depression.” WebMD. WebMD, LLC, 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

“Study Reveals Volunteering Makes Positive Impact on People’s Health.” News Medical. AZO Network, 19 June, 2013. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

“Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits.” HelpGuide.org. Helpguide.org, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

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