Authentic Eagles: Chelsea Beyrand On Service

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Chelsea Beyrand, LSOE ’14

Growing up, my parents made sure that I knew I was loved and how to love others. My father is someone who has inspired me beyond words with his selfless acts of compassion. My father is the type of man who instantly befriends everyone. As a child, I use to get so frustrated that my father would stop and talk to every single person he met. He would ask how their day was, what was new in their lives, but most importantly, he listened. I couldn’t understand why my father did that when I was younger; no one else did. My father saw every person as important, no one was too small or too insignificant for him to ignore. While this was something that I did not appreciate when I was younger, this has been the greatest gift my father has given me. He taught me how to love indiscriminately and unconditionally.

As a child, I was taught that it was important to give back to the less fortunate in your community. I had many privileges in my life, such as a loving family, access to an education, and a home to live in; I felt called to use these privileges to help others. I was going to save the world. At the time I saw nothing wrong with that mindset. I was young, naïve, and idealistic. I thought that helping others made me a good person, so it was something I dedicated my time to throughout high school.

Upon arriving at Boston College, I decided that I wanted to get involved in as many activities as possible. My freshman year I was selected to be a special events chair with the Campus School Volunteers, volunteered with the Special Olympics, and decided to go on Appalachia Volunteers for spring break. Appa was the first time I had ever participated in a service trip, and it was my first experience of truly immersing myself in a community that was not my own. By the end of my freshman year, I was proud of myself for finding the time to help others while tackling five classes.

My sophomore year, everything I thought I had known about service was severely shaken. I took PULSE with Professor Troxell, someone who challenged me and forced me to reexamine the way I viewed both myself and others. One of the most profound articles I have ever read was “Helping, Fixing, or Serving” by Rachel Remen. One of the lines in her articles states: “Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality.”  I remember feeling ashamed, confused, angry, and disappointed. I had been helping people for years! How did I not realize that by going to help the "needy," I was perpetuating a power imbalance and that I had been causing more harm than good?

After reading that article, I committed myself to learning more about service and how I could reorient my life around this new understanding. This was a very difficult process. My PULSE placement was working at an after-school program for children who came from very diverse families and attended Boston Public Schools. Immediately, I entered that placement and created a check-list of what I could do to help. I noticed that some of the children were behind in their reading and math skills, and I saw that as a perfect opportunity to use my education to help them. The mistake I made was only seeing the weaknesses in both the students and the placement. The more time I spent in my placement, the more I recognized the resilience that each student had and the love that each of the staff possessed. The students experienced obstacles such as abuse or neglect in their home lives, yet they still went to school each day and tried their hardest. The placement was under-resourced and under-funded, yet the staff spent countless hours finding ways to connect with the children and to make their afternoons fun and educational. As the year went on, I realized that I had learned more from my placement than I could ever hope to contribute.

Another way I have committed myself to learning more about service was my choice of a service-based study abroad program in Grahamstown, South Africa. I chose to study abroad in South Africa because it is a country that has faced vast injustices under apartheid, yet has come so far in the last two decades. South Africa provided me with the opportunity to serve at an AIDS clinic in the local township as well as learn about the immense economic disparity that exists within the country.

Service is about seeing people as equals. It is a strengths-based approach. It is seeing people as experts of their own realities. Communities did not need me to come in and "save them." They needed people to stop coming in assuming that they knew best. What they needed was respect and dignity. Last week I came upon a quote, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” This quote challenges our typical belief that we need to rush in and save those in need. Sometimes, our greatest gift can be pausing, being present with the community, and letting them tell you whether or not you can serve them. By assuming that we know best, we diminish others’ dignity, worth, and talents. I can honestly say that in my experience with service, I have been taught and given more than I could ever hope to reciprocate.

This year, I have had the opportunity to be the co-president of the Campus School Volunteers and the co-lead of the Dominican Republic Spring Break Service Trip. The one message I have tried to share with all the volunteers I come into contact with is simply to love. Loving others does not have to be a grand gesture or proclamation, just be present. Listen when others talk to you, for sometimes that is the greatest gift you can give. Love the challenges, love the person, and love the discomfort. At times, service should make you uncomfortable. It should make you evaluate the systematic causes of injustice. It should make you uncomfortable when another human being is suffering. I believe that it is in these situations that we recognize that we can no longer sit idly by. While I have encountered many moments that have made me uncomfortable, one that readily comes to mind was sitting at the orphanage in the Dominican Republic and hearing the stories of how the children ended up at the home. The orphanage serves children with disabilities and many of their stories involve similar threads of abuse and neglect. Many of these children were just abandoned in fields or under bridges because their families either could not, or no longer wanted to take care of them. I remember hearing these stories and being both angry and uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable because this was not some story I was reading out of a textbook, this was their reality.

Being uncomfortable leads to you ask questions. Some of these questions include why does such vast economic disparities exist in our world? Why are children with disabilities still seen as defective or useless in the Dominican culture? Or one of the hardest questions, what can I do? One of my closest friends showed me a meditation that has greatly impacted her. The line that she has frequently quoted to me is, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” We often want to fix the problem, to answer all of our questions. But when you step back from trying to save the world and focus on being present, we may live our way into the answers one day at a time. While questions may be uncomfortable, it is a sign that you are processing your experience. What I have noticed is that before my sophomore year, I did not question why things were the way they were. I just accepted injustice as a harsh reality in this world and tried to find ways to help those who were suffering. It is through my questioning that I have come to understand the complexities of service and have challenged my previous complacency.

I have been confronted with some of the evils that exist in this world. I have been confronted with cheating, sexual and physical assault, and the death of a close friend, just to name a few. However, despite the evils that permeate our world, I truly believe that good can conquer evil. I believe that the strongest people are those whom society does not acknowledge. They are my students at the Campus School who are stacked up against tremendous hardships yet still come to school everyday with smiles on their faces. I believe those who are marginalized in our society need our praise, not our pity.

Like many others, being “men and women for others” is a term I first heard at my orientation four years ago. As a freshman, I did not really understand what it meant. I assumed it had something to do with volunteering and helping those less fortunate than yourself. Four years later, I can see how wrong I was. Being a woman for others is not some quota of hours I need to fulfill fixing the world. Being a woman for others is living with intention. It is recognizing other’s inherent values and strengths. It is entering a community and letting that community teach me, not the other way around. But most of all, being a woman for others is loving unconditionally with open hands, an open mind, and most importantly, an open heart.

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