Michael A. MacDowell: Helping Others to Help Themselves

by Michael A. MacDowell

Today’s troubled world has had a profound effect on many people. Some people, through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and had their homes foreclosed due to the recession and stagnant economic recovery. Others are underemployed and lack the hope that is needed to push forward to better themselves and their families.

Michael A. MacDowell, President, Misericordia University

With the need for help growing in many communities both near and far, it is good to know that many college students have answered the call for assistance.  Today’s college students are more prone to engage in service to those most in need than at any other time in recent history. In 2011, for example, 3.1 million collegians performed more than 312 million hours of service for the betterment of communities and humankind in the United States and abroad.

Misericordia University has been at the forefront of this movement since it was established in 1924. In 2011, Misericordia students provided 105,582 hours of community service, becoming only one of 114 colleges to receive “with distinction” honors from President Obama for their volunteer service. Other local college and university students also are fanning out to serve those who are less fortunate.

Supporting those in need by helping them to help themselves was the theme I focused upon recently in my brief address to the incoming freshman Class of 2016. The subject matter of my address was meant to inspire our freshmen, but it can also be applied to life in general.

I told them that around the country, freshmen are starting college at a time of much uncertainty, both politically and economically. The economic recovery is slowing and a vitriolic presidential campaign is underway. There seems to be no end to the bickering and partisanship in Washington, while austerity measures trouble many Europeans and violence grips much of the Middle East.

Given these tenuous circumstances, we should applaud students and their families for making the decision to go to college so these new collegians can hone their personal and professional skills for the betterment of themselves, their families and society. These young men and women can pursue their degrees with vigor and their co-curricular and extracurricular activities with similar intensity. By so doing, they will be shielded from the uncertainty that many face today.

While I encourage students to pursue their degrees and campus involvement vigorously, I also hope they will not shield themselves from the world and all the uncertainty in it. At Misericordia, students are given many opportunities to help others in need and many of our students choose to act.

I have asked our students to use the knowledge that will be provided to them in their studies to inform others about service. It is important to understand why it is right to help people learn to help themselves. Metaphorically, don’t just give them a fish, but help them learn to fish. By doing so, those who are helped will be better for it, and you will be too.

The various service activities we undertake and the regional, national, and international organizations our students serve are all directed at building the capacity of individuals so that those who are helped can learn to help themselves. It’s just as important for others in society – corporations, businesses and individuals – to give their time and talent, and take that baton and follow the lead of our collegians who are working to lift themselves and others up in a time of so much need.

At Misericordia University, for example, the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children program helps young, single mothers obtain a first-rate college education. By doing so, the program enables them to make a better life for themselves and their children by obtaining a good job.

Every spring break, Misericordia students and other collegians help to build homes for families through Habitat for Humanity. The families who will live in these homes participate as well, thereby learning new skills, and more importantly, instilling in them a sense of pride that ensures the new home will be well cared for and the family can build on something tangible.

These are only a few of the hundreds of volunteer service activities undertaken by Misericordia students every year in the global community. Many of them are incorporated into the curriculum and offer ample opportunities for our students to learn how to help others help themselves. As a result, our students gain the satisfaction of helping people “learn to fish” and by doing so, they learn how to do so as well.

Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., where he occasionally teaches economics.

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