Waiting at the finish line, members of Howard University’s chapter of the National Council of Negro Women and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars cheered for participants as they completed their two-mile walk against diabetes.
The volunteers handed the walkers water, patted them on the back and said “Congratulations.” After the event, they removed tables and boxes, posed for pictures and walked side by side to the nearest metro station, sharing stories of their experiences and why they chose to participate.
Although it seemed like a farewell at a family reunion, the end of one event merely signals the start of another opportunity to give back. For these volunteers, service is a way of life. They cherish their position as role models for students at Howard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Freshman Ashley Hunt recalled the “sense of satisfaction” she felt returning to Howard after participating in an AIDS walk in October with the step group Alpha Omega Steppers for Christ. “On the way to campus, it hits you that AIDS in D.C. is real.”
Earlier this year, the Peace Corps recognized several HBCUs for their community service. With 11 alumni in the Peace Corps, Howard is No. 1 in volunteer participation among HBCUs, closely trailed by Morehouse College in Atlanta and Texas Southern University in Houston.
“Being minorities,” Howard sophomore Karina Taylor said, “we’re more aware of our community’s issues, which make us more sensitive to other community’s issues.”
At Howard, performing community service adds to understanding the District of Columbia and its people, who are often referred to as “locals” by students.
“Many times, students stereotype the people of D.C. without exploring the reasons for their behavior,” Howard sophomore Chantal Hailey said. “We have no right to criticize the community unless we are actively engaging in changing it.”
Hailey, who participates in community service with several campus organizations, said that her generation is “not apathetic” and takes time out to volunteer, whether it is by helping fellow students register to vote or by walking for a cause.
Students’ unabashed commitment to the community does not go unrecognized.
A man who has AIDS stopped Hunt and other volunteers, calling them his “future doctors and lawyers.” He also expressed his support for the AIDS walk volunteers, Hunt said, recalling the encounter with pride.
Taylor said that volunteering “gives a sense of reality to the situations plaguing the community.” “Because Howard is known as “The Mecca,”she added, “we should be able to turn brilliance to the community.”
However, community service at Howard is a campus staple, as it is at many other HBCUs. Often a graduation requirement or prerequisite for membership in school organizations, community service connects the campus to the city that surrounds the school.
“HBCUs open your eyes to many issues in the world around you,” Hailey said. “Required courses give [students] global perspectives.”
This could also explains why students from several HBCUs volunteered in post-hurricane efforts in Louisiana and Florida, and why there are countless flyers around campuses promoting community service events.
According to a 2004 Atlanta study, African Americans in the city are eager to help their community through volunteer efforts, while white Americans are more likely to donate.
A recent AARP study added that 90 percent of older African-Americans said they participate in volunteering.
With similar results in various studies, volunteering is possibly a generational hand-me-down, along with hair-presses and shared clothing.
“You can’t understand a community,” Hailey said, “unless you’ve interacted with it.”