Giving Back to Society

How I got involved in service activities at MIT
AUG 2019
Shashank
A.
Mechanical Engineering

The ultimate aim of all the jobs the world has to offer in today’s time, whether in the field of entertainment, business or research, is to ultimately serve the human civilization. While none can claim to be better than others, some have a more direct and faster impact. These include service activities aiming towards helping those not as privileged as others. This realization came to me after a short while of getting involved in such activities, and I wanted to share this with others.

Restricted me: The frog in the well

I joined MIT 3 years ago as a graduate student. I used to receive many emails and see many pamphlets throughout the campus about organizations looking for people to get involved in service-related activities. Whenever I tried giving it some thought, I felt working on high-impact research or large-scale policy is a much better way of solving people’s problems. How could such small-scale volunteering activities possibly make any large impact on society? Hence, I never got involved in such activities. Besides, I was never very confident about the kind of neighborhoods where these events are organized and never cared to explore them either.

Peer-pressured me: The bad company

Last summer, at the start of my 3rd year at MIT, a new Ph.D. student, Saviz, joined my lab. He had already been at MIT for some years and was active in various social projects. In particular, he happened to be a service chair for the Mechanical Engineering department that year, and was organizing monthly service activities funded by MIT’s Graduate Student Council (GSC). One day, he invited me to join a service outing to the Greater Boston Food Bank. As before, I had no interest in this, but just to maintain good relations with him, look social and get some free food, I convinced myself to join the event. When that Saturday morning came, I was already certain that the food bank was going to be in an under-construction, half-broken building with its walls peeling off. Not to my surprise, the place was not in one of Boston’s best neighborhoods. But as soon as I saw the food bank building, I was shocked! The place looked no lesser than a corporate office, with fancy glass doors, RFID-tagged gates, a friendly receptionist and a classy waiting room. Before the shift began, we were given an overview of the activities of the food bank and the resources it relies on. I was surprised to see the importance of volunteering efforts in their overall working. During our shift, we sorted expired food items from non-expired ones for 2 hours — and that was it! I never thought service volunteering was going to be that straightforward, and it goes without saying that I made many friends along the way. Hence, the role of volunteers is not large but is important for them. Motivated by this fun experience, which was quite opposite to my expectations, I signed up for another one with Habitat for Humanity. This event was even more fun: our goal was to build a house, and so we carried out activities like carpentry, whitewashing, etc. These two activities really got me into volunteering and, later, I joined various other outings to clean parks, cook food and stock shelves at places like the Daily Table, among others.

Enlightened me: Getting others involved 

Before I even realized, I began volunteering on a regular basis. Owing to my involvement, I decided to become a service chair with Saviz within the Mechanical Engineering department. We are now trying to get more people involved, and have started volunteering at another important organization in Boston called Community Servings. They provide delicious and nutritional food to individuals and families of people with life-threatening diseases like HIV, cancer, etc. They serve about 650k meals every year in the Boston area! From my experience of getting involved in various volunteering activities, I realize how judgmental and close-minded we sometimes are when it comes to doing something new. In regards to service activities, I learned that it’s not just about making a huge impact on society; it's also about making a direct one, however small. 

Role of MIT

When I reflect upon my service experience, I see MIT playing an extremely crucial and supportive role as an institute. While entities like the PKG Center, the GSC, and the various departments are there to provide financial support, an active MIT community is always there to participate with plenty of enthusiasm. Across the campus, many other students are carrying out similar activities at both the individual and organizational level. Thus the way MIT contributes towards the society by not only making large-scale, ground-breaking research but also serving it directly at the grass-root level by providing numerous service opportunities to its associated members is commendable.

Lastly, I would like to address the readers of this blog: if you are not yet part of any service initiative, I suggest giving it a try once, I bet you will feel great! 

Acknowledgment: I would like to acknowledge Saviz Mowlavi for his help in writing this blog.


Picture from one of the service outings to Greater Boston food bank.