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A Sense of Community

  • Date: 08/26/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • The first steps to a successful career require a need to balance time, to set priorities and to make commitments. This balancing act offers many opportunities for success, wherein probably one of the most promising and rewarding sources of satisfaction derives from our sense of community.

    Many of you got a taste of it, first hand, during the University's Hurricane Relief efforts, which included some of our students going on a working trip to Katrina-ravaged Mississippi. Others got involved in raising money for United Way and the American Red Cross. Still others volunteered through their honor society, fraternity or sorority, or through many student organizations.

    Statistically, 36 percent of college students across the country participate in service-related activities.
    (Campus Compact, www.compact.org)

    Yet, this sense of community certainly is not confined to college campuses nor to students responding to natural disasters.

    You probably are aware of the announcement by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates that he will transition out of the day-to-day role in his company to spend more time on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their work on global health and education.

    And perhaps you also noticed that multibillionaire Warren Buffet announced that he will give a substantial portion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation - an amount that Fortune magazine has estimated to be approximately 37-billion in today's dollars.

    And listed alongside the Gates in Time magazine's "...100 People Who Shape Our World," is Paul Hewson and his on-going campaign to fight AIDS in Africa. Hewson is better known to you as Bono, the lead singer and songwriter for the musical group "U2."

    Yet, while these individuals continue to receive well-deserved notoriety, it is important to note that the vast majority of philanthropists quietly and unselfishly go about their work, without much fanfare.

    In a few moments, we will honor two such individuals, whose dedication has made them admired and respected community leaders. Indeed, their countless hours of volunteerism have impacted your lives at The University of Akron.

    One of them is Dr. John Fink, the retiring chair of our University's Board of Trustees. In addition to dedicating his life to serving others through the practice of medicine, he provided leadership to our Board in the New Landscape for Learning initiative, which you have seen as the physical transformation of our campus.

    The other honoree is Mr. Roger Read, a retired CEO of Harwick Chemical Corp., a community activist, president of The University of Akron Foundation, a member of the College of Business Administration Advancement Council and a generous benefactor of many worthy causes.

    I believe that Dr. Fink and Mr. Read will readily agree that volunteerism is one of those activities that no one seems to have time for, but the successful simply make room for.

    Historically, volunteerism is a notable slice of Americana.

    As historian Merle Curti has put it: "Emphasis on voluntary initiative has helped give America (much of its) national character."
    (Cited in O'Connell, Brian, "America's Voluntary Spirit," U.S. Society of Values, September 1998, p.9)

    For example, approximately half of all Americans, 13-years or older, volunteer, and they devote an average of four hours per week to their cause.
    (Brian O'Connell, professor of citizenship and public service at Tufts University)

    "Three out of four U.S. citizens are regular contributors of money to charitable causes, and give more than $1,000 per family each year."
    (O'Connell, Ibid)

    And, according to the National Points of Light Foundation, the percentage of adult volunteers in the Greater Akron area is, admirably, one of the highest in the nation.
    (National Points of Light Foundation, as provided by Summit County United Way)

    But why do we, as a society, feel the need to help others, including so many whom we have never met?

    Most of us would agree that we do not volunteer for the money - there is none. Nor are we in it for the recognition, because it is modest at best. Perhaps we can think of it as a kind of "selfish altruism" - our personal recognition that in helping others, we make everything better for everyone, including ourselves!

    And so, I could not help but notice an article in The Economist, entitled "The Evolution of Everyday Life," a review of the book by Paul Seabright that explores how "co-operation has brought the human race a long way in a staggeringly short time...from suspicious and untrusting creatures" to a network of cooperation that relies "on trust among strangers."
    ("The Evolution of Everyday Life," The Economist, August 12, 2004; The Company of Strangers, by Paul Seabright a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse.)

    And to get there..."Two traits were needed, says (author) Seabright, (so as) to bring the fruits of co-operation within reach, and evolution had equipped humans with both - accidentally, as it were. The first was an intellectual capacity for rational calculation. The second, somewhat at odds with the first, was an instinct for reciprocity - a tendency to repay kindness with kindness and betrayal with revenge, even when rational calculation might seem to advise against (either)."
    (The Economist, Ibid)

    Whatever the reasoning, there is personal payback - a sense of ownership and commitment. For some, it is a means of giving back what they have received; for others, it simply is a feel-good experience. For a few, however, it can be a life-altering encounter that actually helps each of them identify their singular purpose in life. Whatever the reason, having a positive impact on the life of another can be an awesome experience.

    And while volunteerism is an American way of life, it also quickly has become a way of doing business. Corporations view volunteerism as a necessity as they increasingly find new ways to compete in today's ever-changing environment.

    Author and corporate consultant Betty Stallings writes that "Volunteer programs can propel the strategic goals of the company forward, and thus are seen as integral, not peripheral elements (of the company). These projects can and do build public credibility for the corporation and increase name recognition."
    (Stallings, Betty B., "Volunteerism and Corporate America," U.S. Society & Values, USIA Electronic Journal The United States: A Nation of Volunteers, Volume 3, Number 2, September 1998)

    In fact, according to a report by the Conference Board, corporate support starts at the top. "Ninety-two percent of...executives surveyed encouraged their staffers to become involved in community service...(and) more than half...acknowledged the linkage between...volunteer programs and profitability, and even more agreed that employee service built morale, teamwork and productivity."
    (Stallings, Ibid)

    Indeed, communities exist for the welfare of all. Each of us has a unique opportunity - better yet, a responsibility - to leave the world a better place...a responsibility to continuously build capacity for better and better communities.

    There are literally thousands of places where you can "plug in" and make a difference in your community and in yourself. By participating in an altruistic process, we will achieve selfish goals as well. The return on investment truly can be exponential for all!

    So graduates...my parting lesson to you is simple: Get involved. Help ensure that future generations have the opportunity to experience what you have enjoyed. Whether it is the arts, healthcare, the environment, the political process or your alma mater, they need your leadership...they need your organizational skills...they need you.

    Make good use of your education. Make a difference. Create a sense of community, just as John Fink and Roger Read have done and surely will continue to do.

    Former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill perhaps said it best: "We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give."
    (Volunteer Recognition, North Carolina State University Website)

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