USC can be a beacon of strong community service

Hailed by high school students, closely monitored by administrators and greeted with a shrug of the shoulders by the rest of society, college rankings, despite their faults, shed a new light on American universities each year. To the delight of Trojans, U.S. News and World Report ranked USC one spot ahead of UCLA, and the Wall Street Journal catapulted the University to a lofty No. 15 this year. Yet a lowly ranking of 155 by TIME’s Money served as a wakeup call, reminding USC that it needs to become more cost-effective. Lost among all these rankings, Washington Monthly, which analyzed social mobility, research and community service came to the conclusion that USC in comparison to its peers stands at 46. On face value, this assessment seems hardly something to wring one’s hands over, but upon closer inspection, USC’s service rank of 161 sticks out as a sore thumb, especially in comparison to UCLA’s score of 52 in service or UC San Diego’s rank of 21. Despite an ongoing effort to improve the surrounding community, USC and its students still have a way to go in terms of cultivating a spirit of service on campus and after graduation.

The criteria that makes up the service ranking includes participation through service-based organizations such as ROTC and the Peace Corps; the amount of federal work-study grant money spent on community service projects; the percentage of students doing community service, the number of hours of community service per student, whether any staff were employed in community service; and finally, if any service courses are offered, and whether the University provides scholarships for community service. This ranking comprehensively surveys how USC and other colleges stack up in terms of giving back.

Despite its disappointing ranking, USC, especially in recent years, has made a concentrated effort to devote time, money and resources to the local community. Roughly once a month on Friends and Neighbors Day, hundreds of USC students work on projects like beautification in the surrounding area. The Center for Civic Engagement has invested millions of dollars in local businesses and nonprofits and has forged partnerships with surrounding schools. Many fraternities and sororities hold fundraisers that raise thousands upon thousands of dollars for great causes. And USC clubs and organizations, from the Joint Education Project to Troy Camp to Share a Meal all dedicate hours upon hours to benefit local students and volunteer organizations.

But there’s room for improvement. Despite students studying in the midst of South Central — one of the epicenters of homelessness in the United States — only a handful of campus organizations work with the homeless. Many student groups scramble to find volunteers on a weekly basis. A lack of funding often limits the ambitions of too many service clubs.

In terms of career development, alumni don’t all have to work in developing nations to still incorporate service into their postgraduate plans. But there needs to be more of an emphasis in the undergraduate experience to reinforce the notion that everyone can and should make a difference. For starters, USC could offer more courses with hands on service components or ones that emphasize how to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to solve social issues and economic inequality. In addition, students could take these skills and incorporate them in their extracurricular work, much like some students do with their pro bono consulting. Cultivating this culture of service during students’ years at USC will make a lasting impression in the lives of Trojans and a lasting difference in the world.

On the administrative level, more work-study funds could be diverted towards nonprofits in South Central that address poverty, homelessness and education inequity. In fact, Stanford doles out 22.3 percent of its work study funds on community service and outreach. Looking to USC’s immediate future, the newly laid foundations of the Village present the University with transformative opportunities. Even though this ambitious project to expand on campus housing and shopping provides jobs now and in the future for locals, concerns such as higher food prices in the new shops remain in the community. And despite USC planning to invest millions in affordable housing in the nearby area, according to USC’s State of the Neighborhood Report, in USC’s study area, from 2008 to 2012 47.3 percent of families with children lived in poverty, compared with a rate of 25.2 percent in Los Angeles as a whole. To double down on its investment in the local community, USC should also devote resources toward creating a substantial community center to provide job training, classes and other services to those struggling in our own backyard.

As students we must realize that our college experience extends past the borders of our campus. The challenges faced by our neighbors should not weigh us down or render us apathetic, rather, they should incentive us to get involved and do our part. Doing so can help us fully emerge out of the stereotype of the “University of Spoiled Children” and become known as the “University for the Service-Centered” or at least the “University of the Socially Conscious.”