A Call to Service for College Students

By Ann Chou, PAIR Volunteer

There is nothing easy or glamorous about helping others and it never promised to be, either. So why do so many charities and volunteering projects make it seem that way?

Think about the “slacktivism” that we see on Facebook (i.e. changing your status or profile picture to promote a cause), products like TOMS or awareness bracelets you can buy to support a cause, or one-time volunteer events and week-long service trips to which college students gravitate. What do all these things have in common? They each successfully package the idea of helping people into easily attainable products or actions, overlaid with the shiny appeal of feeling good about yourself because you helped others. These things all highlight the role of the benefactor in charity; they put our needs, the desire to feel needed and recognized for our good works, above the needs of those we serve.

While the things I listed above are necessary to raise awareness about causes, they are simply not enough to change the world.  What happens after you become aware? After you return from your trip? After you buy those TOMS? Once those good feelings fade, do these things change how you live your life? If they do, you will quickly learn that positive change is not as easy as these things make it seem.

Real progress cannot be bought with a click, nor can it be accomplished in a week. It  is wrought from countless hours of donated time and dedication. It is built on a deep passion for a cause that must be sustained over time not only with initial excitement, but with continual action. The real work of change happens the day after we become aware of issues. Knowledge about a cause should change how we live out the following weeks and years.

Ann with her PAIR student mentees

Ann with her PAIR student mentees

As a freshman in college, I became aware of the refugee population in Houston and began volunteering with PAIR. Four years later, I am proud to say that I am still a volunteer with this incredible grassroots organization that works tirelessly to meet the needs of Houston’s refugee youth. One of most remarkable aspects of this journey has been a deepening realization of how college students are empowered to help refugee youth; not by buying things or going on service trips, but through weekly sessions that take place in our own community. As students, the most valuable resources we can offer to help others are time and energy, both of which are what make PAIR run on a weekly basis. We are able to offer the best of what we have and invest it into a cause that is close to home.

In stark contrast to easy and detached slactivism, PAIR offers its volunteers a first-hand look into how progress can occur. Every session is a training ground for how we, as PAIR volunteers and officers, can improve. We are bonded through the common joys and challenges of working with this special group of students. As we strengthen our relationships with our students, our lives are slowly changed to reflect more selflessness and more compassion. When a PAIR volunteer becomes an officer, it is an eye-opening process, to say the least. They are challenged in every way, from working together on a team to becoming a point person for an entire session day. As president of the Rice PAIR chapter, I have seen officers grow into dedicated, passionate individuals that stop at nothing to ensure the refugee youth we serve have fun and educational programming.

As PAIR volunteers, college students have the opportunity to make a true impact in our own city for up to four years, a chance that is truly once-in-a-lifetime. I have personally seen my very first refugee students, sixth-graders at the time, grow and change into confident, young adults about to go on to high school. It has been a great privilege to play a role in mentoring them at a crucial time in their lives. Through the relationships with my students,  I have learned so much: what hope in the face of adversity looks like, how to listen to teenage woes, and, most importantly, the value of having long-term dedication to those I care to serve.

PAIR mentors and students at last year's Fondren Global Learners graduation

PAIR mentors and students at last year's Fondren Global Learners graduation

Real change happens through these relationships, and no one can deny that relationships are difficult. Though the journey is arduous, the rewards are much greater and longer-lasting than the temporary feel-good high we gain when we participate in slacktivism. PAIR changes the lives of both refugee and college students for the better, and I am forever grateful for my time with PAIR these past four years.

Ann is a graduating senior at Rice University and president of the Rice PAIR chapter. She is a recipient of the 2011 Mayor’s Volunteer Houston Award  for her service with PAIR.