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In the college years, many people think they’re “too busy” to dedicate themselves to the betterment of their communities outside of school—but they’re sadly mistaken.

The idea that your college years represent an all-consuming activity is an easy mindset to fall into, because the same basic message comes from all sides: “Focus on your studies.” “You’ll only be young once.” “The most important thing right now is your education.”

These ideas are not wrong—they just view things from one very material perspective.

After all—is education even worth it if it happens in isolation? Why do we see our spiritual contribution to the world around us as an activity somehow separate from who we are?

The Baha’i teachings say that everything we have can be “devoted to the service of the general good:”

God has given us eyes, that we may look about us at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilization and the arts of living. He has given us ears, that we may hear and profit by the wisdom of scholars and philosophers and arise to promote and practice it. Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 3.

Of course, “the wisdom of scholars and philosophers” is the reason we’re going to college in the first place. A higher education is an excellent tool for service, and is an extremely worthwhile activity. But Abdu’l-Baha also defines service to others as happening “at all times and along all lines.”

Easier said than done, right? For each person, different things become priorities depending on the stage we are at in our lives.

Personally, as someone who double majors in school and works, too, all while still trying to maintain my friendships, household logistics and other responsibilities, I know the struggle. But to say that I never have time would be a lie: I still watch TV shows once in a while, or go out with friends, or take an extra-long nap.

So would it be unreasonable to set aside one or two hours a week to focus my energies on helping my community in some significant way?

College life sets patterns for our life in the future. It’s a space designed for students to find their career path, create real study habits, establish relationships, and also figure out how to manage time. The things we learn in college will carry us through our entire lives—and once we build a lifestyle through these years, it’s not likely to change much.

If we wait until we’re living a more “stable” life, or until we have more free time, when will we ever start serving others? When we’re in grad school, where studies are just as, if not more, intense? When our careers begin? When we have families we also have to support? Now is the time to establish the habitual patterns of life that will become permanent.

Of course, there are many people who find ways to give to their communities no matter their age, their profession, or the size of the families they feed. But those people didn’t only begin to think of how to give back once they had time and money—they had already established a habit of service in their lives, and only allowed that service to grow and change according to the stage of their lives.

It’s true: you’re only young once. That means we shouldn’t waste this precious time in our lives on pursuing only material things and limiting our horizons to ourselves. Instead, we should fully exploit our own potential in every aspect—not only working on our career and our relationships, but also on the main purpose for which we are on Earth: to devote ourselves to helping others and uplifting humanity:

It is appropriate and befitting that in this illumined age—the age of the progress of the world of humanity—we should be self-sacrificing and should serve the human race. …

Every imperfect soul is self-centred and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 68.

Putting service at the center of our lives means that it no longer becomes a hobby; it becomes a priority, in the same way that finding time to eat or sleep. Yes—both eating and sleeping can be very difficult to manage in college. But we still do it on some level: whether it’s taking a nap in the library, cutting down some sleep time, or eating while multitasking.

Service can be just as flexible as eating and sleeping, and it is just as necessary: even if you serve some days more than others, or sometimes have to consciously set time aside for it, it’s healthy and important for your soul. It’s not a question of whether or not you should do it—it’s a matter of figuring out how. There are many ways to serve, and it’s up to us to discover how we can do it in this exact moment in our lives.

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