When masons laid the bricks for the Appian Way arches at Keene State College, did they pause to think about the implications of their task?
We believed that KSC trained us to go out and reshape the world.
They must have seen the symbolic nature of those gates and Margaret Sanger's exhortation framed within the brick. Their work took place in a matter of days; it took me years to understand the significance of that structure.
I see myself as three different men walking through those gates. I have grown and changed since the first time, just as the meaning of those arches and the engraved statement "Enter to learn; go forth to serve" has changed for me.
If you had asked me as a prospective student to define what it meant to serve, I would have looked at you with a mix of bewilderment and blankness and, after a moment of reflection, given an answer that was pieced together from many simple ideas.
I didn't know what I could do to serve, and held only a romanticized definition of service I had seen in Marine Corps commercials and newspaper stories of volunteers.
I had never been challenged to explore the concept. In my entrance application to Keene State, I described such a poorly considered and shallow idea of service that I cringe at the memory of it.
As a student, service became what I believed it to be – more apparent. I surrounded myself with people who felt that they had the ability to make a difference in the world and refused to just "live and let live." We believed that KSC trained us to go out and reshape the world.
The faculty only emphasized the idea that the world was malleable. They had us convinced that as soon as we walked through those gates as graduates, we would overhaul the world.
The discrepancy stemmed from my lack of insight into how the world outside school operated.
I believed that I could change the world through photography, righting wrongs and exposing injustice on a global scale.
At that point I could tell you exactly what I wanted to do, the things I wanted to change. I thought I had it all figured out, but there was one more evolution that remained unforeseen, though it should have stood as a glaring discrepancy between my aspirations and reality.
The discrepancy stemmed from my lack of insight into how the world outside school operated. College is a community where much is given to the student but little is asked in return. I equated the way college worked with the way the world worked.
Throughout my years at KSC, professors often asked what it meant to serve. Each time, the question received an answer that included ideas from superhero comics: helping the weak, dealing in retribution, and adding to the general good of the world.
Throughout my years at KSC, professors and friends assured me of my success and gave me every chance to better myself.
For me, these ideas came alive when I traveled to Atlanta, GA, during spring break to perform community service work with inner-city children. I believe that's when I really began to understand what service meant, that I could define that elusive word.
Today, as a college graduate, I know that service commonly misrepresents itself as something I can do for others.
Rather, it is often that which I do for myself that positively affects others.
Walking through those gates, I looked out for my friends and classmates in a way that came naturally, and they constantly supported me. They acted as my life preservers, my safety nets.
Throughout my years at KSC, professors and friends assured me of my success and gave me every chance to better myself. They held me in a close-knit group and guided me. Serving others seemed to be easy because I had backup.
Now that I am out of college and working, my dream of changing the world is riding shotgun with reality, neither one taking the backseat. I'm surprised at the way the real world and idealism coexist, challenging each other, but both asking for much more giving and much less receiving. I juggle to uphold beliefs while managing responsibilities. The safety net is thinner, so putting myself in precarious situations becomes much more unsettling. With higher stakes, the responsibilities can be overwhelming.
When I get scared, I'm reminded that being responsible for myself means assuming some responsibility for helping others. I feel that I grow from lending a hand, from providing a little support and safety for someone else. Now I try to build service into my work, knowing that if I can help myself I might be solid, solvent, and strong enough to offer support and safety to others. For instance, I am working three jobs in three fields to amass as much experience as quickly as possible and move into a position where I can make a larger difference. I am improving myself, acquiring advanced skills to help those in need.
Though sometimes represented in uniforms or clerical robes, service is a broader ideal; it is the mortar that holds communities together.
So I ask myself again what it means to serve. This time my answer is concise and much more pointed. To serve is to contribute to the good of a community – local, national, or global – by pursuing my own personal success. Though sometimes represented in uniforms or clerical robes, service is a broader ideal; it is the mortar that holds communities together. And much like that mixture of sand and cement, service can wear thin and crumble, needing restoration. And that's when places like Keene State College step in, encouraging people to understand their potential to serve and preparing them for that task.
My mind wanders back to the bricklayers who built the Appian Way gate. Did they already know what took me many years to learn – that you can't serve others unless you can serve yourself? And did they realize that they were building a passageway through which many of us would start a journey of understanding? I think they knew this for sure: they were crafting strong columns to honor small seeds of wisdom. How we nurture them is up to us.