Musing on Service and "Practical Idealism"

            I recently had the privilege of sitting on a panel of faculty members to select finalists for a scholarship for Virginia Tech Honors students. The 1956 award is open to sophomores and is officially described as follows,

“The Class of 1956 Ut Prosim University Honors Scholarship (hereafter abbreviated as Class of 1956 Scholarship) provides outstanding Honors students with unusual opportunities extending far beyond the classroom and campus during the last two years of undergraduate study. Recipients of the scholarship receive financial assistance for their travel experience and University tuition.

An excellent, well-rounded education necessitates that the student define experiences that complement and bring a higher level of understanding to his or her undergraduate education. Applicants for the Class of 1956 Scholarship must seek beyond a simple addition to their disciplinary studies. The Class of 1956 Scholarship seeks to identify students with outstanding ability and the capacity to make a difference in the world in which we live, through volunteerism or service.”

            The honor has two basic criteria: it involves service and travel. Otherwise, students are free to design an opportunity that suits their interests. One afternoon, our group interviewed a handful of pre-selected individuals and reviewed their portfolios outlining their proposed projects in order to determine who would participate in a final selection interview with another panel, including donors.

            The group was outstanding by any measure. All of those with whom we spoke were pursuing at least two majors and/or double minors and a major. All were excellent students with very high grade point averages and all were clearly ambitious, thoughtful and disciplined. Most were already deeply involved in research and had clearly defined professional trajectories. As a group, too, these students were engaged in a range of campus and community activities. In short, they were not simply confining themselves to study. They were also deeply involved in activities on campus and beyond that suggested they took the University motto, Ut Prosim, “That I May Serve,” seriously.

            The projects proposed were as diverse as the students engaged. But I was struck that irrespective of emphasis or disciplinary background, these individuals were genuinely keen to explore and serve the needs of their world. Their proposals aimed to provide vital and enriching opportunities for their own development, but also for those whose lives they would touch. In short, they exhibited at least the fundaments of a strong empathetic imagination, without which it is not possible even to conceive of how one might interact with “the other,” let alone devise ways in which to build a relationship or to pursue a common endeavor.

            One member of our panel, a wise and seasoned professor, observed during our discussions after nearly every presentation, that this or that individual was idealistic. While he meant that in the kindest possible way, rather than as a dismissive plaint, I found myself arguing that I found this group’s evident compassion, empathy and drive to serve others, more than refreshing. In a time when we read so often of the triumph of conspicuous consumption as a central value of our nation’s youth, irrespective of their social standing, these students obviously cared deeply about those they aimed to serve in some way. I found this predilection buoying as it suggested that at least some of this generation’s best and brightest are keen to do more than serve their own perceived self-interests.

            Indeed, as I listened to the student presentations, I was reminded of Sargent Shriver’s now famous 1963 observation as he described the nascent Peace Corps to worldly members of the Foreign Policy Association. Shriver argued that what was needed to change the world was not money or guns, but instead “… youthful enthusiasm and noble purposes … combined with hard-headed pragmatism and realistic administration.” Shriver well knew that such “practical idealism” could not be developed without first ensuring that those to be engaged possessed good hearts, good minds and strong dedication to serving others. I was deeply encouraged to see just such potential not only being advanced, but also rewarded at my university. This small sample of students exhibited a deeply humane and empathic excellence that gave me hope for our nation’s future.