“Shelter: Where Harvard Meets The Homeless” Book Review

shelter-harvard-meets-homeless-bookScott Seider has written an immensely interesting book about a difficult topic in America, nameless “ the homeless”. I put “the homeless” in parentheses because as one learns from Scott’s book- these are real people, with real problems, with real backgrounds and histories. Scott’s book talks about the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter which is housed at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Yard.

The book begins luring the reader into the happenings at the Shelter, but before one is aware, one is intricately immersed into personality development and developmental stages between late adolescence and adulthood. Seider uses the experience of Harvard students to explain the powerful elements that volunteering and community service can provide in terms of personality growth vis a vis Erik Erikson, Marcia and several other theorists. Scattered throughout the book Seider allows us glipses at other relevant theorists such as Albert Bandura and William Damon, as he discusses the impact that working at the Shelter has had on several Harvard students. He discusses in passing Carol Gilligan, Kohlberg, John Rawls and others.

The impact of community service and volunteerism is accentuated in this very readable book. One ventures into the shelter and is confronted with the harsh realities of the cold winter, and at the same time, one encounters the kindness of these untrained, undergraduates of Harvard, some of whom are seeking escape from the Harvard “bubble”.

Each chapter contains some small vignettes from one of the students, or guests at the Harvard Shelter and Seider juxtaposes this with some sociological issue or developmental issue. We follow a number of Harvard students and learn about their background as well as how their investment of time has yielded powerful results in terms of their growth and development.

The issue of community service, be it at the high school level or college level is an important one to be discussed. This book may prompt some discussions about the importance of community service and volunteerism as an important factor in teaching students about the real world and helping them to formulate a sense of who they are, as well as providing a sense of the “big picture”.

I was drawn into Seider’s book before realizing it was actually a qualitative study, with carefully chosen snippets of interviews incorporated into his discussion of other relevant topics such as mentoring, teamwork, inequity, hardship and service experiences. Seider however clearly indicates that he is not advocating for more volunteerism among college students. Perhaps he lets his text speak for itself. As someone who has volunteered a good bit of time with the elderly, with emotionally disturbed children, as a basketball coach, and with the local humane society, I know there are varied and many benefits to being part of one’s community and mentoring youth. I also know that there never seem to be enough volunteers to help with the Relay for Life, for local church events, for AYSO soccer, and of course, the local schools.

There were some missing elements of Seider’s book that bear mentioning. He did not delve into causal factors, although he does mention HIV/AIDS, and alcoholism, as well as drug use as contributing factors. He does not mention deinstitutionalization, although one may presuppose or assume this as a factor. He does not mention certain theorists such as Viktor Frankl, as I believe that the students who volunteered did get a certain amount of purpose in life and saw some meaning to their lives.

There is precious little about the impact of volunteering and community service on the personality development of college students seeking to solidify their ideas about themselves, and their concepts of themselves as participating adults in society. This book fills a certain gap and provides a foundation for researchers and scholars who are looking to understand the full impact of community service on social, moral and emotional development,  Should all college students be forced to engage in community service? I know there are opportunities, but one is hesitant to “require or force” such service on some college students who are already overextended and stressed. But this book goes a long way to offer some insights into the benefits of caring for some of our fellow men and women in a charitable fashion.

Courtesy of Education News.

© Copyright 2011  Allison Stuart Kaplan  www.Askinyourface.com LLC

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  1. Super story indeed. My father has been seeking for this info.

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