October 25, 2010

Save Your Money for Yourself

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Walk down Ho Plaza — or any college watering hole for that matter — on a given day and you can be certain that some student organization will bombard you with a plea to buy a t-shirt or donut with the proceeds going to a noble cause.

And, if the organization is lucky and you charitable, you will give a few dollars that will be donated to a village in a developing country or fund research on a debilitating, incurable disease.

But alas, most groups are not as lucky and the request will be ignored, as have been countless others in the past. And when all is over, the group will have raised a few hundred dollars — maybe a few thousand if they’re lucky — to give to the charity of their cause. Self-congratulations will be exchanged and the passion that inspired the charity campaign will be buried away until next year.

And while these efforts to solicit financial donations on campus are not in vain —sometimes a dollar wisely invested in development programs can reap great returns —  it undoubtedly is not our forte.

The fact is that with nearly 60 percent of Cornell students and 66 percent of all undergrads nationwide receiving financial aid (according to the Department of Education) these donations are channeling meager funds from penny-pinching college students to those in need of significant aid. And while supporting a cause through financial donations is convenient and quick — after all, all they require is a sign and booth — charitable giving is not our strength.

Practically speaking, with almost five billion dollars funneled into the National Cancer Institute alone by the federal government and nearly 30 billion dollars of aid donated to developing countries by the United States, a few hundred or even thousand dollars scrounged up by college students truly is the proverbial drop in an enormous bucket.

No, these aid efforts do not need the shallow financial contributions of college students, most of whom still depend on their parents. Instead, what they need most from us are things rarely found outside of the college bubble, but are rife within it — our idealism, passion and ideas. These are the rare commodities that are in high demand in the outside world and, luckily, are the specialties of undergraduates.

College students are at the singular point in their lives where they are naïve enough to chase after worldly goals, but are also smart enough to be capable of reaching them. Unlike most adults who become jaded after years of reaching dead-ends and have adopted a cynical and static view of the world, college students still maintain a fresh sense of idealism and passion. And it is our responsibility to imbue the world with them.

But we must change our approach. First, we must erase the assumption that the only way to contribute is through monetary donations. The opportunity cost of organizing bake sales and ticket raffles is much too high. Instead, let’s employ our time and energy in projects that involve direct action and self-exposure to reap greater returns.

Want to save Africa? Go there yourself. The life lessons of witnessing poverty and suffering firsthand will be a much more valuable experience than the few dollars raised from poor college students. It will plant a seed that will eventually grow into ideas and inspiration to develop newer, more efficient solutions to world problems.

And secondly, we must better utilize our three talents. Our campus has almost 800 registered student organizations — ostensibly a proud statistic for Day Hall to boast. But a deeper examination of these organizations reveals a hidden and harmful redundancy. Currently, we have some 18 organizations in the midst of saving impoverished countries. Another 24 groups are fighting for minority rights. And we mustn’t forget the 16 clubs who are busy saving the environment.

And consequently, we have diluted our valuable commodities. By pursuing parallel goals on separate paths, these student organizations have erected barriers between their respective causes, creating unnecessary inefficiencies. The leaders of these aid organizations must begin to network and collaborate — and perhaps even merge — amongst themselves to create an exchange of ideas to ultimately pursue their visions on a united front. After all, these short four years will be the only time when 13,000 brilliant minds will be concentrated within a 750 acre plot of land. We must take advantage while we can. Until these organizations create a dialogue, their efforts are not meeting their full potentials to create lasting and significant change.

Let’s face reality: College students are unsuited to be sources of funding. We are better suited for direct action while we still possess the ideas, passion and idealism that the rest of the world lacks. These are the strengths that we must embrace and donate to the world, not our pocket change.

Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang