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Taking out the trash

Last year I got to take part in an illuminating exercise in the observation of human behavior—tabling at the Market Place. I was trying to sell credit cards to students to make some money for my organization. My voice grew less and less enthusiastic as I realized most people were skipping the tables entirely, and those that didn’t went to the table next to me. Jealously, I watched a student donate some food points to the Measles Foundation. What did that table have that mine didn’t? Sure, there you could save a life for a dollar…. But c’mon! I had free 50-minute phone cards! As I came to the realization that most Duke students already had a credit card, and those that didn’t were too lazy to fill out the extensive form to get one, I began watching people’s reactions to the Measles table as they filed in for their dinner.

The first reaction I noticed was avoidance. Students stood in line as far left as they could, in fervent hope that the Measles table would think that the extra two feet they had moved was too far a distance for them to traverse in the quest to save lives of afflicted children. Another response was to ignore them altogether. More dutifully than horses with blinders on, students did not turn their head and remained focused on the lady swiping DukeCards in front of them. Some decided excuses would be the best method, and sheepishly meeting the eyes of the tabling students muttered something incomprehensible, giving them a half-hearted smile meant to convey something along the lines of “Keep up the good work! Just don’t bother me about it.” The last reaction was students scrambling to look busy. Calculus textbooks and chemistry flashcards popped up out of nowhere.

But as my freshman English professor said when our class vehemently insisted that “Animal Farm” was nothing more than a sordid tale about power hungry pigs and a donkey that just didn’t learn from experience—“Let’s take things a little deeper.” Students’ reactions to tabling are the same as people’s reactions to problems in our society. We use these reactions as justifications that nothing needs to be done—at least by us—to improve the state of our world.

I’ve always had a deep respect for those special individuals that devote their lives to community service by becoming a member of the Peace Corps, or flying to Africa to set up schools for uneducated children. I couldn’t understand how there were people in the world like that and then there were people in the world like me who, shamefully enough, felt like community service was a chore. But since I’ve entered college, I’ve found the key for moving from apathy to action.

Community service can’t be an activity that feels like a chore, because then you will do it just about as often as you do any other chore like emptying out that precariously tall pile of garbage in your room. People go to Africa or enter the Peace Corps because it’s something they are passionate about.

One of the few positive things about our world being so screwed up is that it’s screwed up in every way imaginable. That means whatever your passion, you can employ it for the betterment of the world. For example, I’m in a class this semester on robotics with a community service requirement. I have to go to a middle school twice a week, and teach kids about math and science by helping them build robots out of Legos. I get to play with Legos—and it’s a service to the community.

You can’t stop at every table and help every single organization by donating money or food points. It’s just not possible—if you’re like me you don’t have any points to spare because you’ve wasted them on milkshakes at the Loop and have calculated that for the last week of the semester you are going to have to survive on water, salted pretzels and Nerds, the only staples in my dorm room. But you can figure out what inspires you, be creative, and use that to help other people and be pleasantly surprised with the realization that service doesn’t feel like a chore anymore.


Carolina Astigarraga is a Trinity sophomore.


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