After Sly Majid graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Government in 2004, he landed a secure job at an insurance company with a comfortable office and handsome salary.
But day after day, Majid continued to feel empty and restless.
"I didn't like where my work was going," Majid says. "I never felt that the work I did meant anything to anyone really. But now I feel like every single ounce of energy I give makes a difference in someone's life."
After his one-year stint in the private sector, Majid took over as the executive director of Eastside Community Connection, a nonprofit that provides education classes and food to low-income east Austin residents managed completely by student interns and volunteers.
"Many see young people as self-absorbed and focused on superficial things, but now - more than ever - they're going to realize these people they've discounted are going to be a force," Majid says.
During his time at the university, he ran an environmental program for youth, created a service organization for first-year students and coordinated Project 2003, one of the university's largest one-day service programs.
Majid is among a growing number of college students and recent graduates dedicating their time and resources to the greater good. Some travel overseas to administer aid in earthquake ravaged nations, others sacrifice their spring breaks to build houses, and some use their high-tech skills to feed the hungry in poor local communities. Like Majid, many recent graduates go on to pursue full-time service work in nonprofits and cheritable organizations around the world.
According to a 2002 study conducted by Marc Musick, associate professor of sociology associate dean for student affairs in the College of Liberal Arts, and a team of researchers in RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, 75 percent of students at The University of Texas volunteered nearly three million hours in community and university projects during the 2001-02 academic year.
Eight years later, Musick believes the numbers remain the same.
Musick and co-author John Wilson, delved into volunteerism in their 2007 book "Volunteers: A Social Profile," which won the Best Book Award from the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organization and Voluntary Action in 2009. Based on data from research studies throughout the university and around the world, the book covers a broad range of aspects of volunteering
"We really have been bucking the trends in volunteering research," Musick says. "A lot of other research studies have been based on motivations, but we focused more on measuring what opportunities people are exposed to."
He says there are many reasons service work is so popular among college students. One is that they're surrounded by opportunities.
"College campuses are a hub for volunteering," Musick says. "If you're in the community and have no ties to volunteering organizations, you're most likely not going to volunteer. But if you're on campus, you can just walk through the south mall or go to the Center for Volunteering and find a wealth of opportunities."
Contrary to the "Animal House" depiction of Greek life, Musick says fraternities and sororities volunteer more than anyone on campus and deserve credit for their lofty philanthropic endeavors.
Delta Gamma member Caitlin Eberhardt spends much of her spare time mentoring students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a part of her sorority's philanthropy, Service for Sight. She also served as the chairperson of the Litter Committee of the university's Campus Environmental Center, where she worked with the Green Greeks Program.
Eberhart's commitment to others was borne out of her personal struggles. During her senior year in high school in Coppell, Texas, she temporarily developed debilitating vision problems. Unable to read or drive, she was overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty.
"It was a very difficult time, but I gained perspective on the strength and courage the blind and visually impaired garner on a daily basis to function in an often-unaccommodating world," says Eberhardt, a history and anthropology senior. "Although my vision is back to normal, I continued to empathize with blind and visually impaired people."
Paying it forward
Although many may assume altruism drives people to volunteer, Musick says self-interest lies at the root of almost all "altruistic" behavior.
"Many students choose to volunteer to find a sense of purpose and self-empowerment," says Musick. "Empathy is a powerful force that drives people to ‘give back.'"
Christina Ngo, a sociology senior, is all too familiar with the struggles students face in underserved high schools. A daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, she grew up in an underserved community in San Antonio, where she attended overcrowded, low-quality public schools. Through hard work and perseverance, she says she excelled in school and earned generous college scholarships.
"Having been fortunate enough to receive a great deal of financial support from many different areas when I thought I couldn't afford to go to college led me to the next step - I want to able to ‘pay it forward,' to give back to others, and to commit myself to helping other people achieve success no matter the barriers," Ngo says.
In between classes and her time-intensive thesis project, Ngo dedicates her Saturdays to tutoring a high school student with a background much like her own, limited financial resources and big dreams for the future.
After graduating in May, Ngo plans to teach math and science at an inner-city school in Phoenix through Teach for America. She also hopes to work toward her doctorate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and eventually become an advocate for educational and housing policy reform.
"Since I found out about Teach for America and its goal to eliminate the achievement gap, it has been my dream to be part of the program because of the influential teachers I have had throughout my educational path," Ngo says.
A Lasting Impact
While volunteering at Eastside Community Connection, Heath Cleveland, a rhetoric and writing senior, found his calling, helping underserved communities break out of the cycle of poverty in Austin and throughout the world.
As the food pantry director, Cleveland discovered a visionary idea for a streamlined food ordering database. He took his idea to a Management Information Systems class in the McCombs Business School, where he fleshed out his creation with his instructor and a team of students.
"Everyday I am amazed with the resources available on our campus to do projects like this," Cleveland says. "It's helped me to see how with a little drive, elbow grease and a good cause, people can really pull together to do some good things."
Using his online grocery-ordering system, he started his own organization, Nonprofit Services and Information Networking Center, in which he focuses on creating a more effective and efficient food service system. By this fall, the database will be operating in multiple food pantries throughout Texas. Working closely with ECC, he has helped Sly Majid and his team operate their food pantries with fewer volunteers.
Majid says Eastside Community Center is dedicated to serving as a springboard for future leaders in the nonprofit sector.
"The five years I've worked in this office, I've seen the most talented and giving young people I've ever encountered," Majid says. "The beauty of this generation of young people is that they have high caliber skills in technology and an unsurpassable desire for change."
By Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404
Ambitious, curious, energetic, friendly, funny, hard working, humble, inquisitive, intelligent, mature, personable, talented, thoughtful, and unassuming. These are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Johnny Meyer, a Government honors student with a double major in English, and one of 12 students that College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl named a 2010 Dean’s Distinguished Graduate, a program established in 1980 to recognize graduating Liberal Arts students who have distinguished themselves in the areas of scholarship, leadership, and service to the college and university community.
More parsimoniously, Johnny Meyer is downright interesting.
September 11, 2001, Johnny Meyer was training with the 1st Unit, 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army. The 82nd enjoys a rich history; its soldiers were among the first to arrive in Normandy, June 5, 1944. September of that year, the 82nd undertook Operation Market Garden – an attempt to take and secure key Dutch bridges, and thereby provide a northern route into Germany and pave the way for war’s anticipated completion that Fall. Preparing to commemorate the operation, Meyer and his unit found themselves paddling in the middle of a waterway when they were called in and told a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Johnny was ready to be deployed. No such orders came. Dissatisfied, he volunteered for the 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment in Alaska and completed U.S. Army Ranger School, the Army’s premier infantry leadership and tactics program.
The oldest of six children, Johnny’s childhood found him in Dallas, New Orleans, and finally Kansas City, where his father is CEO of the American Red Cross Greater Kansas City Chapter. Family life had a certain impact on his coming of age – a sense of social responsibility and a belief in working with the system to effect change, for example. Other variables also entered the mix – for most people natural disaster meant a reprieve, albeit unwelcome, from work; but when catastrophe struck, Johnny’s dad was paid to roll up the sleeves. And then there were the summer road trips. Looking back he realizes the underbelly may have been whitewashed, but from the car window Johnny saw a beautiful country, one worth preserving and deserving of his pride. He remembers one trip to the Alamo and River Walk. Only after setting his sights on the University of Texas did he realize that trip was to San Antonio, not Austin.
In high school, Johnny was less than distinguished. He was bored, not especially happy, not doing so well academically, disengaged, directionless – a run of the mill American teenager. But, he decided to turn aspirations into action and join the military. In part it was an intellectual experiment – what was being in the military really like? In part it struck Johnny as a good alternative to what was adding up to an empty life. He desired, strongly, to be useful, to make a difference, to have a purpose, and the military seemed to him to be someplace he could gain the tools he needed to actually contribute to society. At the most basic level, parachutes and guns suited his adventurous side.
Regardless, his expectations were low. He did not expect to excel, and figured he would look back on the experience as a quirky experiment of young adulthood. It turned out he was good, really good, and he felt he was good at something for the first time in his life. With each day of training, Johnny realized he wanted it more than other people did, and that he was better than them, and he advanced, quickly, being promoted above his peers four times in under four years. By the time it was all over, he had led an infantry fire-team through continuous and sustained combat operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border without receiving casualties, was recognized for leading the best trained fire-team in the unit, and, in a non-combat role, leading a government capacity-building team, awarded a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in Iraq.
At this point, readers are forgiven if they fail to predict the next notch in Meyer’s belt – a 2009 Roy Crane Award in the Arts, an award given to University of Texas at Austin students for unique, creative effort in the performing, literary, and visual arts. Johnny received the award in recognition of his novel, American Volunteers, which he subsequently adapted and produced as a play. The novel is based on his experience in war, an experience that began in October 2003 when he was flown into Kabul, where he remained for about one month, providing security for an Afghan training ground, before being deployed to patrol the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Following the deployment, Johnny was faced with a choice – go Special Forces and career military, or leave the service. January 1, 2005, his military service officially ended, and he began a road trip from Alaska to Austin in search of the non-existent River Walk, the “awesomeness” his Ranger buddy who had been ROTC in Austin assured him was waiting, and life without state income tax, but also, and mostly, the college degree he always knew he wanted, something the military’s educational divide between the officer corps and the infantry reinforced.
Ever learning on the fly, Meyer realized he did not yet have the credentials to be admitted to the big campus, so he enrolled at Austin Community College, which he attended for four-five semesters. ACC served Johnny well. The diverse student body allowed him to see the lay of the land – to imagine where he may have been if he never joined the military and to see where he might be headed if he did not continue pushing forward. Overall, the environment offered some flexibility as he reintegrated into civilian life, and his educational pursuits were fostered by helpful teachers who got their subject matter across efficiently and detailed quite well how success would be measured at the University. After a lackluster, lackadaisical high school career, Johnny earned a 4.0 at ACC and his application for transfer to UT-Austin was approved. It was a huge weight off his shoulders, and he was proud of his accomplishment.
It was also during his time at ACC that Johnny drafted the American Volunteers manuscript. While naturally reticent of things smacking of labels, Johnny concedes a therapeutic role for writing. Meyer is glad to have been in the military. Indeed, he says that if he had the opportunity to return to military conflict, the draw would be strong. Nevertheless, he was trained to kill, and he trained others to kill, and he survived in an environment where it was kill or be killed. Writing has been a means for Johnny to work through conflicts within his self, and to help ensure his experiences continue strengthening and bettering him and the society he seeks to improve, rather than the alternative.
It was somewhat to Johnny’s dismay that in September 2006, three weeks after enrolling at the University of Texas, he was called back to the Army. After his initial release he assumed he would be called back. With the passage of time and the power of his writing, his military experiences were becoming decidedly in the past, and he even thought he might be reaching a point where he didn’t think about it on a daily basis. Being called back was a bit defeating – trapped is the feeling he described, like he had walked through a new door but into the same room. Johnny kept his chin up and took the attitude that he had been through the experience before, he had gained some perspective on that experience, and he could use that to do his job better the second time around.
As it happened, his second experience would be vastly different. Meyer was promoted to staff sergeant and sent to Baghdad, where he joined a provisional reconstruction team and was put in charge of more than 50 local national workers. In short, the United States is trying to get a functioning government in Iraq. Local national workers are basically Iraqi lobbyists who operate throughout the country trying to establish a government responsive to citizen needs and demands. Johnny was made non-commissioned officer in charge of operations and returned to Austin in 2008 with a new perspective, one which pushed him to leave the College of Communications and set his sights on political science. Involved as he was in the day-to-day of trying to establish a working government in Iraq, the journalism Meyer once thought he wanted to do no longer seemed up to snuff. Finally at that place where he could make the kind of serious impact he wanted to, Johnny found great value in the political science literature he had access to, finding the political science he was reading matched better the reality on the ground than did anything he found in a newspaper. The newspaper was comparatively superficial and possibly inaccurate; the political science was deeper and applicable.
Meyer’s growing preference for political science went beyond the expediency of the moment. Journalism as a deadline-driven profession no longer appealed to him. He became acutely aware of his deliberative nature, and put off by the idea of having to publish without adequate time for reflection. In a related vein, objectivity as a core political science value really drew him in. His military experience made him ever conscious of the importance of being correct; or, perhaps more to the point, the consequences of being wrong. He came to find in political science a discipline with real tools and intent to reach objective and accurate conclusions, and, combined with his experiences seeing what can happen when such conclusions are applied, he had finally reached a point where the opportunity and ability to be a progressive influence in his world became reality.
Johnny Meyer has the makings of a phenomenal political scientist – a passion for objectivity and rigor, serious grounding and experience in real politics, and unique access to unique data. His honors thesis originated in the two classes he took with his supervisor, Robert Moser, an expert on electoral institutions. The future of Iraq is a question of whether rival groups can overcome a past of violent conflict and achieve a semblance of cooperation. Meyer seeks to answer whether elections can be designed in a way that makes this happen. Currently, Iraq operates with a proportional representation electoral system that seeks to give adequate representation to Iraq’s various groups and is designed to force formation of a cross-group national coalition. Looking specifically at the 2005 election, Meyer found that for the most part the institutions worked as hoped, but with a glaring and problematic exception.
Meyer believes a major problem in the 2005 election was the so-called compensatory seats. Delegates to the national government were selected through the aggregation of votes cast at the level of different regional districts. The division of the country into these regional districts is designed to force intra-group political competition within the region – that is, to institutionalize moderate, non-sectarian politics by forcing politicians to compete for votes within the same group. However, a certain number of seats – the compensatory seats – were reserved for votes based on a national aggregation, which provided an incentive for hardliner groups to mobilize along sectarian lines, at least initially. But Meyer insists on the malleability of identity and interests. In the Army, his inclination was that trying to establish a democracy in Iraq reeked of suicide and foolishness. Not anymore. Whether regime change and nation-building in Iraq is worth the high costs he accepts as a necessary and open question. But that it can be done he considers objectively accurate. Institutions, he says, can provide incentives that change behavior in predictable ways. He should know. He was there when the proper incentives induced people to stop shooting, even if only temporarily.
Prepared by Stuart Tendler*