This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, over 400 students participated in Emory’s Day On, a comprehensive set of service projects hosted by Volunteer Emory. A slew of local organizations, including the Atlanta Hospital Hospitality House, Trees Atlanta and Habitat for Humanity, came out in support. I participated in this event alongside my fellow brothers of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, improving the local Benteen Park with Park Pride. Watching so many of my peers making use of the University holiday to collaborate to serve the city of Atlanta filled me with hope. I ended the day with an increased appreciation for both the legacy of social justice that is attributed to King and the limitless potential of our generation to improve our local communities. The enthusiasm for service and change that I saw Emory’s Day On reminded me of how much we can accomplish together when we commit ourselves to these ideals. The total number of rocks I picked up individually on the baseball field that day may not have been impressive, but a significant amount of garbage was removed from the facility by the sum of us volunteers.
While the statistics of events such as Emory’s Day On are very impressive, one of my favorite things about Emory is that this spirit of service continues throughout the year. There are many individuals here at Emory who work with partner organizations on a regular basis. The culture here does not merely recognize the importance of community service — it encourages us to grow into citizens who are deeply and personally invested in the communities around us. Students have an abundance of opportunities to improve the community institutions in the cultural mecca of Atlanta. I have seen so many of my peers go beyond the hours that may be required for a class or organization to truly immerse themselves in projects that will better the neighborhoods that surround them. For example, my fellow fraternity brother and Alabama Resident Advisor Andrew Block (‘16C) takes his residents and friends every week to Stride Ahead Inc., an equestrian therapy center associated with Little Creek Farm of the DeKalb County park system.
“My favorite part of volunteering is not just the work that we do, but also the connections that you make with fellow Emory students,” he said. “Regardless of year or background, you can learn a lot about someone and who they really are when you are volunteering with them.”
This is key for personal growth as all of us move into adulthood, but it’s also crucial if we want to create a country that offers equal opportunity to every single one of its citizens. Through our service here, we lay the groundwork for the future activists and leaders we will become.
In my time at Emory, it has been nothing but a pleasure assisting in classrooms of all ages with my fraternity brothers at Whitefoord Elementary School, located nearby in Edgewood. We act as teachers’ assistants and help the students complete a wide variety of educational activities. Sometimes I help them complete assigned worksheets. Other times, I take part in classroom activities such as counting aloud or singing educational songs. Once, I assisted a third grader with writing a comprehensive paper on the Affordable Care Act, personally learning a lot about this policy in the process. While I am very grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these children, I was particularly moved when I noticed that students who were a part of Volunteer Emory had also coordinated their own trips to assist at Whitefoord as well. It became immediately clear to me that the Emory student body has an intimate relationship with the local Atlanta community.
My personal experiences volunteering as a tutor in Atlanta Public Schools drove me to get further involved with Teach For America (TFA) — a national organization that recruits and prepares college grads to teach in high-need public school classrooms and join the movement for educational equity in this country. I first got to know TFA through my work at its teacher-training program based in assorted public schools throughout Atlanta last summer. Now, as a representative for the organization here on campus, I get to talk to Emory students about TFA’s mission and my own convictions about the right of all kids to have access to a quality education. When I do, I see the same level of passion in their faces that I feel in my heart. The students on this campus know the barriers low-income kids in Atlanta and across the country face. They know those barriers are the result of systemic injustice. In Atlanta Public Schools, children in low–income communities are more than twice as likely to attend a school that is not making adequate yearly progress compared to their peers in higher income areas. But Emory students also know that we can knock those barriers down with directed actions that have a localized impact on the surrounding community. Whether it’s through TFA or another pathway or organization, they know we each have a role to play.
After meeting many of the student leaders that have made community service an integral part of their daily lives, I am confident that the legacy of King to advocate for social justice will live on at Emory University after reflecting on not only the contributions of my peers during Emory’s Day On, but after also realizing how many of them have continued to make sustaining contributions to the local community through their undergraduate years.
For those of us who are upperclassmen, the next step is to make sure we continue that legacy after we leave campus. Wherever my fellow Emory students find ourselves after graduation, we must commit ourselves to serving the next generation and empowering them to become leaders and activists themselves. Together, we can continue to write the legacy that King and so many others started for us decades ago.
Kiran Sonty is a College junior from Boynton Beach, Florida.