Author: Patrick Bredehoft
The idea of what is true merit should also be often presented to youth, explained and impressed on their minds, as consisting in an inclination, joined with an ability, to serve mankind, one’s country, friends, and family.
As the Director of the Penn Alumni Interview Program, I have the opportunity to work with over 9,000 Penn graduates from all around the world. I am continually impressed by the multiplicity of reasons that lead people to get involved as alumni volunteers, as well as by the depth of their commitment to the institution.
I’ll start this series by considering the force from which other motivations follow, the idea Ben Franklin referred to as “an inclination…to serve.”
Last night, I spent some time speaking with an interviewer in California who graduated from the College for Women in the mid-1950s. She was a trail-blazer in her own right: while at Penn, she had to petition to take Engineering and Computer Science courses, since women weren’t typically allowed to take classes in those fields at the time. In this capacity, she worked on ENIAC, the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer, and then went on to do graduate work at Harvard and MIT. For the past several decades, she has served as an alumni interviewer, and in that time, she has interviewed hundreds of prospective Penn students, many of them young women interested in the field of computer science. Thousands of hours of her life have been devoted to this voluntary effort, which translates into several waking months of service on Penn’s behalf. In our conversation last night, there was a phrase she repeated several times, and it stuck with me: “This isn’t about me,” she insisted. “It’s about the students.”
The Interview Program appeals to some volunteers because it affords them the opportunity to “give back”–not monetarily donations, but with hours invested in service to others. In some cases, this service becomes a passion, and perhaps even part of a life’s work.
The inclination to serve has been a core aspect of the Penn experience, ever since Ben Franklin penned his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania. Franklin didn’t envision the Interview Program in those notes, but I think he would approve of its mission: sharing the experiences of our alumni with prospective students, while allowing those students to more fully represent themselves to Penn. At its root, an inclination toward service may not be teachable, but it can certainly be nurtured, modeled, and facilitated. In so doing, generations of former Penn students are embodying an ideal for generations to come: learning endows us with certain abilities and a common purpose, made all the more valuable as it is shared with others.