Office of Academic Service Learning
Oakland University
Rochester, MI 48309
(248) 370-4445

Travus Burton
tburton@oakland.edu

Student Reflections

Beauty

Dr. Lau, communications professors, had his students write "Beauty" papers. They were assigned to examine the "beauty" in their volunteer experiences. Students in COM 399 complete 60 hours of service in the community as their field placement experience.

Katie Scarth, Salvation Army, Pontiac, MI:

Webster defines beauty as “the quality or qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”  I think most apply the word beauty to the idea of something being perfect, or almost unachievable.  The ordinary is rarely referred to as beautiful.  Ordinary is usually delegated a word such as “homely”.  However, it’s when you consider the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” that you began to look with unrestricted eyes. 

Most people look at the Salvation Army Community Center in Pontiac and say it was less than beautiful, ugly even.  The white painted stonewalls are beginning to fade and chip.  The red letters that read “Salvation Army” are not as bright and bold as they once were years ago.  There is nothing but ordinary inside; the building looks as if it has endured great wear.  But that is exactly what makes the SAL beautiful; the wear that serves as witness to the amount of service it’s provided to the community.

Walking into the building, I see beauty looking into the classrooms during the after school programs.  Young children laugh and smile as they finish a colorful drawing of their families.  They identify each member of their family in detail.  They are filled with pride and joy.  In the next room, the older kids are learning how to cook miniature pizzas.  They look forward to a new cooking project every other day.  Downstairs a game of musical chairs and air hockey is taking place.  The screams and laughing is heard every time the music cuts out.  By definition, the children, the volunteers, the environment and space the building provides are all beautiful; “The qualities or quality in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses, or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”

Later in the afternoon, family members pick up the children, and adults occupy the building.  The adults are not beautiful in the same innocent and joyful way as the children.  The adults look tired.  They’ve had a long day, maybe even a long week.  It’s the adult’s kinship that is beautiful.  Most know each other and have become twice-a-week friends.  They share stories of their tiresome day.  They befriend me very easily, much easier than it would take for me to make the effort.  There aren’t any preconceived ideas about me.  They seem less judgmental.  I guess maybe the ones who are tested the most by life, are the ones who are truly more accepting.  The attitude that judgment isn’t necessary to assess whether it would be in their interest to befriend a stranger, and their sincere interest in one another’s being, is absolutely beautiful. 

When dinner is done, and the SAL is empty, all but for the volunteers and the dirty dishes, it’s hard not to see beauty.  There is true beauty in a person who comes to the SAL every Tuesday and Thursday to help provide dinner and clean up who is not getting paid, and is not forced into the bi-weekly obligation by anyone other than themselves.  The volunteers are a close family; they look forward to seeing each other every week.  Some are older, some as young as high school students.  They come for no other reason, but to see the beauty the SAL has to offer.  Beauty within the people that come to dine, the children that come play, the volunteers that dedicate their time, but most importantly the beauty they see within themselves.  Nothing in the building is perfect.  In fact, everything is extremely ordinary, but that’s the lesson I’ve learned.  Beauty is what brings you pleasure and uplifts your soul.  Beauty truly is, in the eye of the beholder.

Stacey Farrell, Henry Ford, Macomb:

Every day we are hounded by the media’s perception of beauty. America’s Next Top Model is one show in which people are flaunted for what they look like on the outside. People Magazine is another outlet in which we are bombarded with physical attractiveness and it doesn’t stop there. Just about every other advertisement or commercial is about a product that can cover up flaws, selling hope of making one more beautiful. But to think that beauty is only physical is completely and utterly incorrect. When I look around and see beauty, I see a positive reflection of the meaning of our existence; not a physically attractive face. Beauty is not only something that is seen, but it is also something that every single one of us holds inside. True beauty is in our hearts. It is an inner peace that comes after knowing you positively helped others and hopefully made an impact in their lives.

“When I volunteer at the hospital I see beauty all around me.” Yes, hospitals are places where there are many sick and injured people, people fighting for their lives, and family members trying to hold themselves together from having emotional breakdowns in front of each other. Even through it all, beauty can be found. Thus far at the hospital I have seen children who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy and lost limbs due to their type of cancer. I have made eye contact with a woman burned so bad that skin grafts from her behind were needed to make her face look “half way decent”. I have even spoken to a man with a tumor covering almost the entire left side of his face. Through it all, I have managed to find the beauty in each and every one of those people and the people that work inside the hospital.

I see beauty everyday that I volunteer in the doctors, nurses, obstetricians, surgeons, etc. Being in a profession such as the ones they are in could honestly be one of the hardest jobs to have. They see people everyday who are injured or sick and they still come to work every single day with only one thing on their mind, to help those in need. Their love and passion for helping people who really have no affect on their own lives is beyond beautiful to me. Not only do I see beauty in my volunteer experience from the workers, but also from the patients; especially the ones who aren’t “physically attractive”. The children that I have met have opened my eyes up to so much. This past week I met with a 7-year-old girl named Brittney. She had her left arm surgically removed because of cancer and all of her hair had fallen out due to the chemotherapy. Nonetheless, she was still one of the most beautiful people I had come in contact with that day. Her spirit was unbelievable. She explained to me why she denied the option of getting a prothstetic arm. Her reason was simply because God wanted her to look this way; God wanted her to only have one arm. I was in awe listening to her talk and smile. That is what I believe beauty is. Not long blonde hair or two arms, but rather a soul pure, without hate, bitterness, and jealousy. Brittney accepted who she was and what she now looked like and she was completely satisfied with it.

One of my favorite quotes regarding beauty states, “Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumblebee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams” –Ashley Smith. All of that is exactly what I see at my volunteering. I see life and people not taking their lives for granted, even if they are going through a rough time. I see workers living their dreams of helping those in need. While I do see physically attractive people throughout my day, they are not the beauty that is making my experience worth talking about. It is those who show kindness, compassion, and sensitivity for all things living that are truly beautiful in my eyes. 

Dave Rosteck, Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve:

The scientific definition of cold is the absence of heat.  Many scientists do not believe in the concept of cold, that in fact, there is simply differing amounts of less heat.  You and I know what cold feels like; from past experiences we can look out the window and tell if looks warm or cold out, but how does a person define what cold feels like?    In the scientific field there are a lot of concepts like this one; darkness is the absence of light, slow is only made evident in comparison to fast, up is meaningless without down.  So many things in this world are only understood in contrast of its opposite.  It is with this idea in tow that I try to explain how I see beauty at the volunteering position I have at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve.  

Upon first looking at the seventeen acre woods, one is quick to point out its natural beauty.  The rolling wooded hills lightly covered in snow; the ice forming on the out stretched arms of birch, popular, and pine.  The silence of the woods is pristine; you walk through pathways and listen to the river babble and the snow crunch under your feet.  As you walk you see the foot prints of deer and raccoons, alongside the prints of man and his dog.  One could imagine that by day this is a nature preserve for the citizens of Rochester Hills, but by night the animals come out and reclaim their natural place of play.  I then ask myself is it the silence that is beauty or is it the absence of sound that is beauty?  Do the rolling hills inspire our inner poet, or is it the scarcity of telephone poles and strip malls?  I ponder these questions as the first school bus of the day pulls up and twenty screaming kids pour out of the large yellow whale’s double swinging doors.

As the silence of the day is broken and the squirrels are startled back into their high perched look outs in the trees, I answer the first of my questions; it is the absence of sound that makes the woods beautiful.  However; as the day progress’s I rethink this conclusion.   The irritation to my ears, the silence now broken, is becoming its own song in our woods.  The children’s small conversations and innocent laughter has its own sort of rhythm that is beautiful.  As we walk further down the path the song takes up your stride and your feet fall in step with the heavy clomp of these miniature naturalist; I can no longer be irritated by the children’s nonsense as I have become a part of it.  By in large, there is nothing particularly beautiful about any of these children; they are short and clumsy, bundled in torn garb and dripping with snot and unkempt mop headed hair.  There trip to adulthood is at its earliest stages, and at this point their appearances do not seem to be an ongoing conserve for them.  However unruly their appearance and behavior may be, there is something about the wonderment they all share that is captivating.  As questions pour from their minds, and concepts of nature and science are formed behind their glassy eyes, one can see the beauty of their naiveness.   They are open to teaching and the absence of preconceived notions and contempt prior to investigation makes these children beautiful.   

Their imagination is vast and this makes them bewildering to me.  As we approach the number four marker on the trail our guide tells the story of Dinosaur Hill.  She tells the children how forty years ago when this area was being developed the builders dumped all their dirt here in the swamp.  These mounds of dirt make up the dinosaurs neck, and body; the long slope of one hill is it tail and if you squint you can see his head just over there.   The children all smile and assure their friends that they can see it now.  They point out the dinosaurs back to their friends and ask if they might get a chance to climb Dinosaur Hill.  This question prompts a small science lesson about erosion and maintaining Dinosaur Hill for future generations; the answer is no, and the children always moan a bit in disappointment. However, it is hard to keep a nine year old disappointed for long, and it is only a few steps down the trail before they are enthralled with some new aspect of the snowy wood.

There is a bridge on the path that crosses over a small river.  We stop on the bridge and the scene there is something out of nature calendar.  The river is frozen but still it flows.  Ice breaks up in large sheets and is forced untop its self on the banks of the river.  The water rolls over the occasional rock jutting from the stream, as ducks glide in the shallows eating small bugs near the edge.  This bridge reminds me of the Maple River back home.  As I stand there looking upriver, I wonder why it is that I ever left Bliss County in the first place.  As I justify my decision I remind myself that life is harder where I came from; houses are smaller and poverty more accepted.  I recall the six month winters and the short summer season.  I think about a younger mans decision I made to leave that home for something better, and I ask myself now if I knew what a better life was back then.   A small tug on my coat sleeve brings me out of my daydream and I look down to see one of the second graders asking me about tracks in the snow.

It is here, in the woods next to a frozen river, that I realize that I can not be as beautiful as these children.  I am faced with the realization that I was once this open to the world, and that those days are far behind me.  I have spent so much of my life trying to be respected, and admired; I have exuded so much energy trying to be a grown up and to become a man all onto myself.  And as I stand in the woods with toes cold and cheeks red with winter air I realize that all I really want now is to be that child again.  It is in comparison to these snot riddled and unkempt children, that facts are made evident; they are beautiful in ways that I cannot be.  Their eyes and their minds are open to new experiences; they have not yet made up their minds about who they will become.  I on the other hand, my new experiences are now distant memories;  I have already formed my judgments and I have already decided who I will be.    The difference between us is made apparent as we look at the three mounds of dirt in the forest; As they look out, they see Dinosaur hill, with its back, tail, neck and head;  lying in the woods beckoning to be played upon.  As I look out I only see the tree covered hills, tall with birch, popular, and pine, lightly covered in snow.

Matt Walczak, Devonshire Retirement, Lapeer, MI

In Dr Lau's course students are also challenged to think beyond their daily activities in reflection papers. Here is an exert from a student's paper. Matt Walczak, who took COM 399 during the winter 2010 semester, volunteered at Devonshire Retirement. He was able to interact directly with seniors living there through conversation, games and various events.

This is what he had to say at the end of the semester:

This volunteer experience has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done at school. It is better than any of the tests I have aced, or twenty page papers I have done so much work on and received that 4.0 for. This is something that I can always look back on and feel good about. I can feel good that I used my communication skills that I learned over the past four years and put them to good use building relationships with people I probably would have never met if not for this volunteer experience. I can feel good that I made friendships that will last long after school is done. I can feel good that I actually made a difference. I have felt how rewarding it is to volunteer through this class. But I do not want to stop volunteering, instead of looking at this as being the end of my volunteer experience. I am going to look at it as only the beginning.