|Kelly and her crew worked on this house in the Upper Ninth Ward for six hours their last day.
“Liberal education … liberates the mind from ignorance and cultivates social responsibility … Liberal education is at once an uncomfortable and satisfying encounter.”
—William G. Durden ’71,
President of Dickinson College
(from Welcome to Dickinson College:
In this age of instant information, we consider ourselves knowledgeable about world events and, if not, we are only a click away from learning the facts. But none of those words or photos has truly any bearing on the reality of actually living through an event—or living in the aftermath of the event.
Trust me when I say that I was definitely ignorant when I arrived in New Orleans this past November to assist city residents with rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in August 2005. I thought I understood the situation for which I was volunteering my help, but I had no clue.
Imagine surviving the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States and, 18 months later, your home is still precisely as it was immediately after the hurricane.
Imagine having just paid off your 30-year mortgage two weeks earlier, only to have your house and most of your life’s memories swept away in a flood, then discover there is no help from the federal government or the state to rebuild your home and your life.
Imagine being airlifted from one of those infamous interstate overpasses, then housed in the Superdome, bused to the Houston Astrodome and, finally, returning to your home, only to live in a trailer for 18 months because you still have not received the federal financial assistance to which you are entitled to rebuild your home.
This is the reality in which I and a few of my closest friends found ourselves when we volunteered with Operation Helping Hands, a volunteer program run by Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
All of the people in our small group were from the southern Maryland/northern Virginia area. I may never see some of them again, but I will always have a bond with them and would happily accompany them again on such a journey. That part of the experience reminds me of college. In fact, most of my experience seems to fit very well into President Durden’s definition of liberal education.
I am sure we all consider ourselves socially responsible, but I have learned that none of us truly are until we take the time to listen to those who have lived the experience: to not just make a monetary donation but to actually give your time so that you have true empathy for another’s situation. It is the only way that I have found to transform what came to feel like a futile endeavor into a satisfying encounter.
Maybe it’s time for Dickinson’s liberal-education curriculum to require a commitment to social responsibility outside of the classroom and off campus. It would be an epistemological journey—whether locally, nationally or internationally. We continue to learn from that which we think we know but which is truly outside of our daily realm of experience, to find a way to daily cultivate social responsibility not only in ourselves but in others.
Social responsibility: It lasts a lifetime.
Kelly Wolf ’82 was an international-studies and history major at Dickinson. She lives in Vienna, Va., and is a director at Octagon, a professional athlete representation and marketing company.