“How can I help you?” Americans serving the greater good

New Yorkers pride themselves having a PhD for minding their own business, even treasuring their reputation for being rude. Is this true? As a Fulbrighter in New York, I say: “fake news!” New Yorkers ask me countless times how they can help me. In shops, employees are ready to point me to the needed row; at university, colleagues help me to settle in; and in the street, complete strangers guide me in the right direction the moment I seem lost. “How can I help you?” seems like a mantra I hear all the time.

2019 05 11 Fulbright (60) Hudson sailing
Wendy Wiertz. Photo: Romane Berti

If you start thinking I look extremely helpless, I do not. But I started to notice that everywhere around me, someone will stop their daily rat race and offer their assistance to a person in need. In the subway, beggars always find someone handing them a little money; in the bus, young people immediately give up their seats to the elderly; and in the city, hundreds choose for a job to protect and to serve. 

And it isn’t only assistance towards humans. Buildings are erected with large sums of private and corporate donors; museums add new acquisitions to their collections thanks to generous benefactors; and parks regain their beauty because of monetary donations and volunteering hands. However, unlike the biblical verse “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3), these generous offerings of money, time or expertise are not kept quiet. The buildings are named after the biggest donor; identifications besides the artworks mention the benefactors; signs at the entrances of the embellished parks proudly announce the efforts of the neighborhood; aspiring students use their volunteering activities in their college applications, while soldiers, policemen and firefighters are especially remembered on Memorial Day.  

The spotlight on all these good deeds makes you want to act too! During my Fulbright scholarship, I volunteered several times to teach. My favorite time was being a Global Guide in a Queens primary school. The kids and I talked about climate change and how our small actions can prevent it. (We had so much fun, we forgot to take pictures!) Other Fulbright scholars help in food kitchens, exchange ideas with the elderly, create public art murals and mosaics within the community; and… The list is endless. 

Undertaking action for the benefit of all is contagious, rewarding and fun. It is also a part of the Fulbright experience to connect with individuals, to grow mutual understanding and to have an impact on each other’s lives and communities. And to say more often: “How can I help you?”

Dr. Wendy Wiertz is a 2018-2019 Fulbright Research Scholar in Art History to Columbia University. Dr. Wiertz received her BA in biomedical sciences at UHasselt and later her MA in art history at KU Leuven. In 2018, she successfully completed her Ph.D. on the topic of aristocratic amateur women artists in Belgium between 1806 and 1914.
Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.