“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
- Frederick Douglass
Early in life, we are taught to define success as something we do. Successes are action items that can be quantified and lined up neatly in chronological order on a resume. Grades earned on exams, universities attended, dollars churned, titles held. We hang report cards on refrigerators and cry over rejection letters and derive a sense of accomplishment from checking off to-dos on our lists each day. Rarely is success framed as a reflection of character. Fortunately, a myriad of influential mentors that I met in college helped me redefine success as something I am, rather than something I do. I slowly discovered that in order to feel successful, I had to first create my own set of moral guidelines by which I could quantify my actions in a way that was actually meaningful to me. Thus, so far, much of my young adult life has been a journey to discover and better understand my purpose and values as an individual. The more I discovered, the more I became obsessed with defining these words for myself. Purpose, values. Purpose, values.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this journey began in my freshman year of college. When I landed in Washington, DC in the fall of 2015 to begin pursuing my undergraduate degree at The George Washington University, I felt like a complete outsider. I had been transported from a world of Northern Maine cow farms and friendly neighbors with niche hobbies to a world of breaking news, hyper-competitiveness, and total anonymity. DC felt like a true dog-eat-dog society. Every man or woman for themselves. I hated it.
GW contained 43 urban acres of the most polished, worldly, and wealthy people I had ever met. Pretentious, privileged. I tried everything to fit in, but neither rushing a sorority, nor joining a club sport, nor attending social gatherings on weekends worked to improve my sense of self. I spent my entire savings from working in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant in high school on new clothes, weekend brunches, and nights out in the city. What I gained in status, I lost in purpose. I didn’t feel that the communities I had joined made me truly better in any way. I spent that first year working so hard to assimilate into those 43 acres that I failed to realize anything else existed outside of the Foggy Bottom campus.
The first week of second semester, I crossed the Anacostia bridge for the first time for a service day at a soup kitchen in a low-income community with my field hockey team. A mere fifteen-minute drive from campus, these streets felt a world away. In wards 7 and 8, 150,000 people have access to a total of three grocery stores. Public transportation is less than reliable, and the nearest hospital is on the other side of town.
Dishing out bowls of food to the long line of recipients, I stood in disbelief that this was the same city that I lived in. The city of tailored suits, political power, and $7 coffee was also the city of blatant inequality and rapidly gentrifying communities. I remember being told that day that the average life expectancy in this ward was 66 years. The average in Georgetown was 94. The words unfair, justice, disparities, stuck around in my mind after that day. As did, for the first time since I moved to DC, the word purpose. I was determined to learn more.
The leader of our service trip that day told me about the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service at GW. She also told me about a program called Alternative Breaks, where groups of students can spend a week of their spring or winter vacation doing service in different communities across the U.S. and abroad. She encouraged me to apply, and so I did.
My next year in school, I participated in an Alternative Breaks trip to New Orleans where I spent a week with 45 other students building houses with Habitat for Humanity. I had never felt as alive or full of purpose as I did after that week. Service, injustice, integrity. A match had been lit, and the flame would not smolder.
When I returned, my undergraduate course took a shift. I switched my major to public health and got more involved in service-learning. My next year in school, I led my own Alternative Break trip to Los Angeles where I learned about issues like mass incarceration, homelessness, and gang violence. I was so inspired by this trip that I joined a program called Petey Greene where I spent an afternoon every week tutoring incarcerated individuals in correctional facilities in DC. Purpose, values. I finally felt like I was becoming part of something bigger than myself.
This journey helped me realize what it was about GW that had made me feel like such an outsider for so long. At GW as well as many other colleges across the nation, individuals are encouraged to be working towards their self-interest. Life is kind of like that too. We spend each day becoming so consumed in ourselves that we lose sense of our greater meaning. As young adults, we are pushed so hard to “get on the right path” and to “build our careers” that we spend all of our time scrutinizing and analyzing and perfecting ourselves so that we may attain the most lucrative and successful individual life. Selfish, shallow, superficial. This is not what I value.
Service has allowed me to learn, discover, and grow in a way that takes me away from my individual self. And that, I truly believe, is my purpose. To build a better world around me not for myself but for other humans who face obstacles greater than my own. To understand and overcome the injustices and disparities that perpetuate society as we know it. To face and accept my own privilege not with guilt and disdain but with understanding of how to best utilize it in favor of justice for those with less privilege. This is who I am, and this is how I will define my success.
- Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service is an organization that engages with GW students and provides them with the resources necessary to get involved in service oriented activities. If you are a GW student or DC Native, check out their events page for different service opportunities near you.
- For more on GW Alternative Breaks, or inspiration to create your own, independent, service-trip breaks, click here.
- Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization focused on building affordable housing for low-income families. For more on the organization and possible volunteer opportunities, click here. It should be noted however, that volunteer operations have been temporarily suspended due to COVID-19 related safety concerns.
- The Petey Green Program recruits and trains volunteer tutors to support the academic goals of incarcerated students. PGP has offices all up and down the Northeast United States so if you feel like you have a solid educational background that could be shared with others, consider applying to become a tutor.
About the Author
Meredith Prescott recently graduated from the George Washington University with a BS in Public Health. She is now spending a year serving as an Americorps member in Western Colorado with a food security nonprofit that hosts students for farm-to-school education and grows vegetables to donate to hunger relief.
She hopes to continue learning about and serving in the interdisciplinary fields of public health, food security/food justice, and sustainable agriculture.
For more of Meredith's work, check out her writer's page.