On March 23, 1,400 University students went to Detroit Partnership Day. It was an amazing experience to say the least. Walking into Crisler Arena on Saturday at 8 a.m. to see hundreds of students gathered to give their time was a sight I’ll never forget.

I volunteered for DP Day, and it was a truly tremendous experience. My group’s site was Historic Ft. Wayne. To give a bit of background on this site, Historic Ft. Wayne is a fort that dates back to 1840. It was built as reinforcement in the aftermath of the War of 1812 when the threat of a territorial war with Britain, and subsequently Canada, was still a reality. But the potential war never came to pass, and the ensuing peace made the fort a place to train and induct soldiers, the first of which arrived at the onset of the Civil War.

The role of Michigan in the Civil War is a significant aspect of history we often forget. President Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said, “Thank God for Michigan.” And many of those troops, the ones that rose to the occasion from the start, came out of this fort. As a guide told us, the fort was one of the last things Michigan troops saw before being deployed to fight.

Discovering that something with so much significance and so much history is less than an hour’s drive away was eye-opening. I’d never even heard of this site, and I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life. That was a sentiment echoed by many of the volunteers I went with. Our site leader, Public Policy sophomore Raeesa Khan, reflected on her experience, “I was shocked by the fact I had no idea this existed 30 minutes away from my home. I learned that Detroit has such an incredibly rich history and culture, and that it’s a shame, especially for people who live in the area, to not take advantage of all the city has to offer.”

It was another testament as to how isolated and removed we’ve been from the city of Detroit and its historical and cultural roots for the better part of our lives, and just how much we have to learn from a city that’s so close.

The work we did there was a simple clean-up effort: cutting down and burning dead, overgrown brush. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was exactly what the site needed. And it made a tangible difference. Seeing that difference was perhaps the most rewarding thing of all.

Not only that, it taught me a huge lesson. They say that while a part of service is giving back, a part of it is also selfish. We volunteer our time, our resources, ourselves, because we like the feeling of helping and of learning. And that’s often subconsciously how I approached service — with the attitude of wanting to do something “substantial.” Of not just wanting to complete mindless tasks, but wanting to learn about the community and the people. I assumed the only way to do that was if I was performing tasks that I could find meaning in, tasks that seemed significant to me.

DP Day taught me that service isn’t about what you want to do — it’s about what the community needs. And that if you seek to learn about a community, even in the smallest tasks, you’ll walk away having learned more than you can imagine. I learned that no matter what you’re doing, simply being there — physically and emotionally — and witnessing a place, a people and a community will teach you eons about circumstances different from your own.

We talked a lot on the bus ride about community service and service learning. I always divided the two based on the type of work I was given. Community service to me was something short term, a repetitive task I was told to do, me putting in the hours needed and then leaving. And service learning seemed longer, going into a community, staying there, growing with them and learning from them.

I still stand by much of that distinction, but DP Day has taught me one important thing: No task is too small and no time too short. That service learning can happen in a day or even a couple hours. That it’s not about what you’re doing, but the mindset you go in with. It’s impossible to ever fully experience what another person’s day-to-day life is, but it is possible to go into a community with a willingness to learn, not impose. To not come with a preconceived solution, but with a desire to understand and serve in whatever way they need.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.

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