One of the things I have been thinking this summer, while being away from my parents, girlfriend and friends back in Toronto is how much time have I spent doing any form of community service since the day I arrived in Canada? I say with great regret that the answer is “one day.” The time I have spent to improve the community in which I live can be counted in hours, and it was last year when I volunteered for UofT’s Outreach Day and I planted trees near the Etobicoke river, back in September 2007. That is truly sad…
I am not saying that giving back to my community should take precedence over my studies; that is a trap that I won’t fall into. Besides, before one becomes a good teacher one has to become a good student. However, I do think that I should reserve some of my free time to do things that will make the community around me a little bit better. Why? For the same reason that you’d offer some help to an old lady carrying heavy bags out of the supermarket: it’s the right thing to do. The fact that my studies demand all my attention doesn’t mean that I will alienate myself from my peers, like I have done many times in the past.
Inevitably, I started thinking what defines my community and who exactly are my peers? Unfortunately, I do not live in a residence, so my notion of community does not expand to a dorm. Are my parents my entire community? Of course not, I’m not that antisocial, I do have friends, good friends. So, are my parents + friends my community? Well, not exactly, because I do care about other issues whose scope is greater than that. Here are a few of them, in order of precedence:
One of the things that literally eats me inside is that people my age back in Albania do not have access to modern textbooks, unless they download them from the Internet, simply because they are so expensive. If $90 for a usual textbook is deemed expensive for students in Canada, then how expensive will it be for a student in a country like Albania? They also do not have professors who can guide them, especially when it comes to Computer Science, but they cannot download that from the Internet, can they? I wonder if someone has told them about books such as Programming Pearls by Jon Bentley, the Algorithm Design Manual by Steven Skiena, or Learning GNU Emacs by Eric Raymond et al. That’s all it takes some times, just to point out the right path and many people will follow it. For the ones who study CS, I wonder if their degrees will be equivalent to western universities’ degrees when they try to apply for grad studies or work. I fear that they will have the same fate the previous generations have had, that of non-recognized degrees when they go to another country.
Another one is how inaccessible computers seem to people in their fourties and fifties, who might be quite well-educated in a specific area, but are completely computer-illiterate, to the point where browsing through the Web or filling out an online form seems like a challenge. Be careful here: they are not stupid or under-educated; they just haven’t used computers before, probably because in their countries records were kept on dead trees. They never needed computers, so when they go to a country like Canada, people think they are stupid just because they don’t know how to use Word and Excel… The neat thing is that they can pick this knowledge up very fast if they are systematically taught by an instructor.
The third one has to do with the student experience at UofT. The interns I have met this summer at Google come from a variety of backgrounds and from many different schools ranging from MIT, to universities in New Zealand, to…you name it. The ones who study in American universities usually have a thing in common: they are part of fraternities, sororities, they live with other people, they know how to socialize and share, and (very generally speaking) are people who try to improve the community around them. They participate actively in their universities’ events and they still manage to do very well academically. In other words, they are people who I admire.
To answer the question I asked myself some paragraphs ago: my community is all the people I interact with and all the things I care for.
Here’s the challenge: how can I offer some time back to my community, spend more time with other people, join my fellow students, improve my student experience and that of others, without impacting my studies negatively in this very critical 4th year? Can I do something like that, or is it beyond my abilities? Am I again overestimating what I can do? Also, is it possible to use what I have learned so far in CS to improve my community? Are there ways to do that in UofT?