An individual who is required to volunteer is not volunteering; he or she is acting in a pro bono manner for an external purpose. To engage in an activity voluntarily means to freely select the particular activity. Volunteering cannot be mandated; the instant one becomes required to volunteer, the activity ceases to be volunteering. So although the question brought forth here is, “Should high school students be required to volunteer in community service projects?” the real debate centers around the question, “Should high school students be required to engage in pro bono community service projects?”
Pro bono projects should be required of high-school students. The benefits to the student who participates in such an activity can have a substantial impact on his or her future, not to mention the short-term benefits for the organization or association for which the service is conducted. To quote a colleague, “Making community service compulsory negates the intended purpose.” I disagree. The purpose of pro bono work is to reveal the benefits of the type of service generally considered voluntary while actually participating in the service. That is, requiring students to participate in such activities allows them to see first-hand the positive effects volunteering can have. No PowerPoint presentation or tour through a soup kitchen can replicate the feelings one experiences when actually having an impact on the community without receiving compensation. Requiring students to recognize, feel, and experience what it could be like, were they to volunteer, may have a remarkable impact on their lives.
And the fact that the activity is usually engaged voluntarily is significant. Often times, people are coerced into activities at first and later continue to engage in similar activities voluntarily. For example, consider the child who plays sports because his parents register him or because his friends play who later plays intramural sports, in college, and slow-pitch softball, as an adult, without coercion. Or consider the student who is required to take science classes as a young person and then later elects to pursue a career in chemistry. The same can be true of the student who is required to participate in pro bono community service projects. She may grow up to recognize the remarkable impact volunteer activities can have on her life, her community, and her world, and she may then choose to devote her life to philanthropic endeavors.
So can and should students be required to volunteer? No, because that is currently impossible. But should students be required to engage in volunteer-like activities? Yes, without a doubt.