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Guest Opinion: The mythos of philanthropy

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 27, 2015 5:00 AM

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In one of my favorite episodes of “The West Wing,” Sam Seaborn argues, “Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.” In my college experience, I have found that statement to be true — but only with the help of philanthropy. Fortunate to be a recipient of the Presidential Scholarship, I have had the financial flexibility to pursue interdisciplinary course tracks, leadership positions in student organizations such as student government, and global internship and study-abroad programs. The Stanley Undergraduate Award for International Research also supported my work on environmental reforms in China, which has significantly influenced my future hope to help build a more sustainable U.S.-China relationship.

The silver element of philanthropy’s contribution to education is not personal advancement; rather, it is reflexivity, a willingness to examine the responsibility that comes with opportunity. I spent spring break with a group of Presidential Scholars engaging with the issue of educational equity — and one thing we learned is that 389,730 food-insecure people and 10,000 homeless children in Iowa must often choose between their immediate needs (such as finding food to eat or a safe place to sleep) and education. To be truly reflexive, philanthropy mandates an ethic of care for the less fortunate. I believe the University of Iowa has met this standard, often with the support of philanthropy. For example, donors provide scholarships for engineering students so they can serve developing countries’ water and energy needs and provide funds to support breakthrougha in medicine, public-health initiatives, arts outreach, and diversity-enrichment programs. 

The effect of philanthropy through these programs is exponential, but I want to end with a discussion of its meaning. To be frank, I still find a definition of philanthropy to be quite amorphous. The word is wrapped up in mythos and originates from Prometheus Bound. The concept of mythos often carries a negative connotation, but just because a story is not entirely true does not mean it cannot contain truths. In retellings of the myth, the titan Prometheus displays his love of humankind by bequeathing the gift of fire. But in the story, Prometheus, known as the first philanthropist, gave humanity another more important gift: hope. Fire is useful for technological advancement, but hope is our eternal spark. So perhaps philanthropy is meant to be amorphous in its form — with gifts ranging from fire to funding to hope — but definite in its capacity to bring warmth and light.

Jeffrey Ding
Class of 2016
Student Philanthropy Group
Vice-President, University of Iowa Student Government
Alumni Relations head, Presidential Scholars Program


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