Action vs. protest: Perkey defends her generation

Angela Perkey. By David Williard.Related audio content

Angela Perkey discusses: (1) her introduction to service-learning; (2) current Students Serve projects; (3) getting service-learning outside the ivory tower; (4) service-learning at William and Mary; and (5) service-learning as a 'quiet’ activism for a generation.

Critics who charge that the current generation of college students has failed to engage the affairs of the nation miss the mark, according to William and Mary senior Angela Perkey. Citing specifically an op-ed “Generation Q”—“Q” for quiet—written by Thomas Friedman that appeared in the New York Times, Perkey said assumptions that her peers, in the words of Friedman, “may be too quiet, too online, for [their] own good, and for the country’s good,” fail to take account for the fact that placard-carrying, slogan-shouting tactics favored by previous generations accomplish little.

“Just because we don’t protest, we don’t take a stand verbally, does not mean we are not engaged,” Perkey said. “Instead of just speaking up or going to a protest, our generation acts. We get out there and … we solve the problems that we see facing our community and our generation. Actions speak louder than words.”

Perkey, who very much is a product of the service-learning culture at William and Mary, has acted. Last year, fresh from a service-grant funded research project that tackled the issue of obesity in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn., she founded Students Serve, an organization that provides similar grants to help undergraduates at other universities apply the service-learning model. In Austin, Texas, one student is using a Students Serve grant to address youth violence by offering art creation as a non-aggressive outlet; in Raleigh, N.C., another student has created a medical rehabilitation service that is acquiring equipment—power wheelchairs and walkers—from local hospitals and refurbishing them prior to distribution to low-income residents. The common thread is each is forging academic knowledge with civic engagement to effect change, Perkey said.

Students Serve, which is entering its second year, is fully directed by undergraduates at the College of William and Mary, a fact that brings it incredible vitality but that also has proven a fundraising liability. Perkey is frustrated by the fact that, despite an early grant from MTV, the organization was able to approve only two projects out of nearly 100 that were submitted. “Sometimes it’s difficult to convince donors, other non-profit leaders, to have faith in us because we are young and we don’t have 20 years of experience, but we work 20 times as hard in order to acquire that experience,” she said.

Even as they prepare to approve additional grants this month, the directors of Students Serve are doggedly working to solicit funds to extend service-learning opportunities. They are employing both Web-specific and traditional marketing strategies to get their word out, and they are networking with strategic university-centered groups to help others grasp the service-learning vision.

“What we really want to do is to get service-learning outside of the academic ivory tower,” Perkey said. She suggested that the term, in itself, is a liability—“it is hyphenated, it is long, and it doesn’t really give individuals a sense of what it means to serve a community with academic knowledge.” Although group members played with other phrases—“We thought about ‘smart-learning,’” Perkey said—they remain committed to the inherent power of the model and to its rightness for their peers.

“Protesting can only go so far,” Perkey explained. “If you aren’t in political power—and college students are not—you can only do so much, but with service-learning, you have the ability to use your convictions and act upon them to create change. That to me, and to our generation, is much more valuable.”