Gratitude for service not conveyed through applications

Sheila Fogarty, columnist

When my mother offered to buy Diego ice cream, he replied, “Solo quiero una hamburguesa para llevar.” It was 6-year-old Diego’s first time on a school field trip to Lake Atitlán, and after traveling awhile and eating a full meal, it was hard to believe he wanted a hamburger instead of the ice cream sandwiches all his friends had. As he longingly pressed his nose against the glass of the ice cream freezer, we asked why he wouldn’t order ice cream. He told me that he wanted to bring his burger home for his older brother, who unlike Diego, did not have the opportunity to leave his hometown often.

Buying a hamburger, something I can get within minutes of ordering an Uber Eats, required Diego to sacrifice buying ice cream, an unrefusable offer from a 6-year-old perspective. What shocked me most was the happiness and pride this burger brought him. Diego is among the many people I met that created the euphoric sense I feel whenever I think back on my service in Guatemala, and that have taught me valuable lessons about selflessness.

My family introduced me to service at a young age, and I’ve tried to maintain its role in my life throughout high school. It is something I look forward to and something that allows me to strengthen relationships, educate myself and create differences in their lives.

My experience makes me feel an overwhelming wave of awe and admiration whenever I think back to the kind faces I met and the natural beauty I witnessed. During the trip, I was positive, curious and excited to work. Despite the many times I heard about service trips being resume builders, adding this experience to my college application was an incentive that never crossed my mind, and I saw the trip solely as a wholesome adventure.

Because a service trip resonates within enthusiastic volunteers with such euphoric sensations, describing a service trip in a college essay is especially difficult. As I wrote my supplemental essays and tried to conform a feeling so sublime to the narrow scope of a prompt, I felt the process desensitizing the trip as I articulated something that could not justly be verbalized.

Senior Ellie Eisenberg described a similar struggle in mentioning her own service experience in Peru in a college essay.

“There is something about going and experiencing [a service trip] that is indescribable to people who haven’t done something like that,” Eisenberg said. “It changes you in a way [that] people just don’t understand until they experience [it].”

Though students who enter service trips and consider them application boosters can definitely be impacted by their experience, it’s much more difficult to gain the same appreciation for that environment without the desire to be there solely for the service.

Moreover, the process of writing about an experience that occurred in an unknown setting with completely unfamiliar struggles to that of Glenview made both Eisenberg and myself feel as if we were using their struggles for our own benefit.

“The biggest thing I took away from it was that the kids and the people who [have little] were so willing to share with me that I shouldn’t be trying to take things from them,” Eisenberg said.

I decided to omit my trip to Guatemala from my application altogether. It took away from my own feelings towards my trip, and it felt inhumane to write about the very real struggles of my own friends. The people I met in Guatemala had given me so much, providing me with examples of how to live an impactful life selflessly; therefore, it would be selfish to use their story for my own personal gain.

Participating in a service experience requires a genuine intention and desire to take part in something bigger than oneself as well as an appreciation for the experiences it provides. Fulfilling these requirements has allowed me to find a new perspective and sense of self through the relationships I formed in Guatemala.