The Gift of Growing Up and Giving More
By Zennie Trieu
Happy November! For some of our readers, this year’s Thanksgiving will be the first of life after college. In addition to the countless joys, warm memories, exciting aspirations, and necessary challenges that I get to wake up to every day, I am particularly grateful for my recent experiences, both paid and volunteer-based, in working with nonprofit organizations in New York City. I don’t think there’s a better time for post-grads to engage themselves in community service than during the incredibly formative weeks and months following commencement—And while such service does require a certain amount of discipline, physical effort, planning, and patience, this is the sort of work that leads to the best kind of exhaustion at the end of the day: tired but motivated, sleepy but satisfied, ready for bed but, also, ready for the next day’s opportunity to help out, give back, and grow into a more complete, generous, and ambitious person.
In his 1889 essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth,” steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie urged for the rich and the elite to consider the implications of possessing their fortunes. Very much disapproving of ostentatious and indulgent spending, Carnegie argued that, after financially taking care of one’s self and family, the next priority for the wealthy individual should be charity. He encouraged the upper class to recognize that philanthropy does not simply involve giving money away to the poor: “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.”
According to the famed industrialist, humanitarianism is not so much about doing big important things for others as it is about assisting people—in more specific ways—along the journeys that they have already started and are adamant on continuing, despite struggle and strife. Responsible generosity from the wealthy, Carnegie insisted, is one of the true blessings of the privileged. Assisting those with less does not always necessitate monetary handouts, and when I think of Carnegie’s article, I no longer associate the terms wealth or capital with their purely financial definitions. I possess capital in different senses. In these non-economic regards, I am quite affluent. Right now, I may not have a lot of money. Bills to pay, loans to pay back, rent, daily expenses necessary for us to take care of ourselves...We as recent grads may not be able to afford all of the donations we want to give out or the multitude of independent journalism subscriptions we want to commit to. Opportunely, very often for volunteer work and community service, not much is required other than you bringing yourself—and an open mind.
We have received an undergraduate education; prior to that, we were high school scholars. Although we are new to the professional scene and are still trying to figure out our career beginnings, we are equipped with knowledge, ambition, and an insatiable hunger to learn more. We are youthful and not yet jaded. We are (hopefully) not too immature, but we are still impressionable. We have energy, and we don’t want to waste it. We have time, and we consider it precious. We have independence that we continually desire to preserve, and if that sense of individuality becomes threatened, we are willing to fight for it. We want to do the right thing. We want to do something.
And so I argue that we ought to spread that vitality, that enthusiastic energy, that persevering spirit. When we get frustrated about a topic or situation, we are lucky enough to have the resources necessary to do something about that upset or anger. We have the Internet, we have public libraries and books, we have voices, we have charisma, and we have the ability to march, to speak up for those that may not have the opportunity to be heard, to write, to create art, to have difficult conversations.
In the past few weeks, my mom and I have become volunteers at a food pantry nonprofit located just a few blocks north of Washington Square Park. (This is corny, I know, but…) It’s difficult to describe how much I genuinely look forward to waking up at 5am every other Saturday morning, watching the sunrise with my mom while we embark on our interstate commute, meeting fellow volunteers from all over the NYC metropolitan area, and organizing food items into bags for two hundred people who choose to patiently wait in line outside of the church— rain or shine, often in the cold.
Most recently at the food pantry, I was assigned the task of giving out tickets to each person in line, waiting to receive their bags of non-perishable food items. I made eye contact with all two hundred folks, exchanging good mornings and thanks, and after a certain point, I got to learn some names, some birthdays, and about some hobbies. It was humbling. It was a pleasure for them to share their stories with me. I cannot wait until the next time I get to see them, along with some new faces.
For some, post-grad life can be alienating, in that some of us slip too deeply into the myopic “me, me, me” mindset. Our focus, worry, and effort are all placed on “my résumé,” “my reel,” “my headshot,” “my portfolio,” “my website,” “my series,” “my LinkedIn,” “my brand,” “my Instagram,” “my career,” “my dreams,” “my plans,” “my life.”
We should be reminded often that we didn’t get to where we are on our own. Many others have been involved in our upward journeys and successes and turning points. We are thankful. What should we do with such immense gratitude? Barack Obama said it most eloquently during a message on Veterans Day: “Today, we humbly acknowledge that we can never truly serve our veterans in quite the same way that they served us. But we can try. We can practice kindness. We can volunteer. We can serve. We can respect one another. We can have each other’s backs. We can ask, ‘Now, what else can I do?’”
Consider the museums, theaters, publications, schools, places, organizations, and communities that have changed your life. Go back. Reconnect. Emerge anew. The more you listen to others and extend a helping hand, the richer your life—and theirs—becomes.
Or branch out. Try something new but necessary, scary but significant, a real risk that’s also a genuine leap forward. Back in the summer, I was offered a position as a teaching artist assistant with a nonprofit, celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, that specializes in providing arts-in-education services to roughly 36,000 students per year in about 150 public schools across all five NYC boroughs. During half the week (and in addition to my full-time copywriting position in the plus size fashion industry), I have a three-hour round-trip commute from my house in northern New Jersey to different public schools in Brooklyn.
Such travels give me plenty of time to be with myself, listen to full albums uninterrupted, and read my printed out articles. I get to the school, and my bright-eyed students all exclaim (always altogether in the loveliest cacophony I’ve heard in my recent life), “Ms. Zennie! Ms. Zennie!” Then they all tell me about their weekends (simultaneously), and we begin the afternoon’s session on Garage Band or architecture.
This is exactly the kind of work that a young, cheerful, and optimistic post-grad would find immense joy, purpose, and inspiration in doing. Every day for the past month, I haven’t been able to get certain statistics out of my mind, and so being a part of such an outstanding nonprofit not only heightens my sense of communal pride, but also, simultaneously, makes my individual humility skyrocket even more. I am eternally grateful for the happiness, innocence, and propensity to learn, to problem-solve, and to work together that these radiant, unstoppable, and hardworking students have showcased to me, time and time again. They give me something that I want to hold close to my heart and also spread to everyone I encounter: hope.
In high school, we were encouraged to do community service because putting such activities on our college application would prove to admissions offices how we were well-rounded students and selfless individuals. Of course, some people never grow up past high school, and it is true that putting volunteering experience on your current CV and social media profiles (and, who knows, maybe even Bumble and Tinder) will impress prospective employers, friends, and lovers. If this kind of stuff is your biggest motivation for ultimately engaging in community service and volunteer work, you’re technically still doing pretty damn good things in your free time. But if you’re keeping up with the best sitcom currently on network television (or the one reality TV series that has single-handedly defined my past year and a half), you probably won’t end up in the good place (and you’re definitely not here for the right reasons).