February 21, 2001

Pay It Forward Inspires ILR Class

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In a lecture to members of fraternities and sororities at Cornell, Catherine Ryan Hyde, the author of the novel Pay It Forward described the magnitude of the effect that these philanthropic organizations can have on the community and the rest of the world. She addressed a class of about 60 students in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations entitled “Leadership Seminar in Fraternities and Sororities.”

Hyde’s main character, Trevor, the 12-year-old boy in the novel, has an assignment in his social studies class to come up with a project that would help people in the community. He determines that if one person does three acts of kindness, and each person that receives one of these acts does three acts for three separate people, the number of acts of kindness will go up exponentially. Hyde explained how fast the number of acts multiplied.

“By the seventeenth level, his calculator could not hold any more numbers. In a few more levels, we have exceeded the population of the world. That’s the power of exponential growth,” Hyde said.

The success of the story behind the novel inspired Hyde to found the Pay It Forward Foundation. This charity organization educates and gives middle-school students the resources that they need to do philanthropic projects. Ten percent of the proceeds from the novel goes to the Pay It Forward Foundation.

The novel, published by Simon and Schuster, has been made into a motion picture. The movie, which stars Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment, is currently playing in theaters across the world.

At the end of the lecture, Felicia Hunt, assistant dean of students, fraternity and sorority affairs, presented Hyde with a check for $1,000 for the Pay It Forward Foundation.

Hyde explained to the class how she came up with the idea to write on this topic. When her car stalled and caught on fire in an unsafe neighborhood, two men came to help her. Although she said she was scared at first, she realized that these men risked their lives to extinguish the flames from her car’s engine.

“They were not looking for a ‘thank you’ or money; if they had they would have stuck around longer,” she said of the two men.

She encouraged the members of each house to embark on projects and acts of kindness because something small can really mean much more to somebody else. Hyde referred to a portion of her book where Trevor brought a homeless man to his house for dinner.

“His mother wasn’t too thrilled about the idea, but Trevor knew he was doing the right thing,” Hyde said.

Hyde described why she thinks doing acts of kindness for others would encourage those people to respond by doing their own good deeds.

“My observation of human nature is that people go about life doing unto others as they have had done to them.”

Then, she related the phrase “Pay it Forward” to the members of the audience and the entire Greek system at Cornell. “At a discussion I had last night, we were thinking that stemming from this class, we could have 3,500 people ‘paying it forward.’ Now, you don’t even have to multiply that by three, but even just that group can do some great things,” Hyde said.

Prof. Jennie Farley, industrial and labor relations, is the professor of the class. Pleased with the guest lecture, Farley said she hoped that the students would bring some of Hyde’s ideas back to their individual houses.

“I think each person can do their part in making their organization better than they found it,” Farley said.

Some students seemed very impressed by Hyde’s unique approach at inspiring community service.

“I think that her idea is very optimistic for our times,” said Rachel Braverman ’03, a member of the Alpha Epsilon Phi Sorority. “It is very interesting that she said that the idea of Paying it Forward had to be through the eyes of a child.”

Many attendees of the lecture also reflected on the ways they will use Hyde’s ideas to do service projects.

“As vice president of [the Kappa Alpha] Theta [Sorority], my hope is that through our philanthropic work, we could be a part of a worldwide movement to not necessarily pay it back, but to pay it forward as well,” said Lindsay Williams ’03.

Hyde’s visit to Cornell also included a reception at the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority and a book signing.

Archived article by Seth Harris