A strong sense of civic duty, coupled with a weak economy, is leading many college students to national service as a way to earn money for school while giving back to their country. This comes at a time when President Obama has renewed a call to service for all Americans, an “all hands on deck” approach to solving many of the systemic problems our country faces.
When he signs the Serve America Act into law, which was recently passed by Congress with incredible bipartisan support thanks to groups like Georgetown’s chapter of ServeNext, young people will face unprecedented opportunities to be a part of something larger than themselves and carry on a tradition that is deeply rooted in our history.
Some 76 years ago this month, in the shadow of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt called upon the country’s young men to enlist in a new kind of service organization: the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was designed to provide jobs at a time of high unemployment and to serve as a new means for natural resource conservation across the country.
In the tumultuous 1960s President Kennedy directed a generation to ask what they could do for their country – not as a “call to arms,” he said, but as a call to bear a burden against our common enemies, like poverty and disease. To this day, young people in the Peace Corps work toward his bold vision.
The enactment of the Serve America Act will be our own calling of higher purpose, as it marks a moment when our generation, as President Kennedy said, has been “summoned to give testimony to [our] national loyalty.” Throughout the country and on college campuses like ours, it is with this most noble and important tradition in mind that we must rise to the challenge of giving of ourselves in whatever way we can.
The act will triple the amount of AmeriCorps volunteers to 250,000 and establish programs that will provide educational grants for students who give a summer or semester of service. Schools will be renovated, trees planted, children mentored, the poor fed, the sick treated and before our eyes, our country will be rebuilt from the ground up, by ordinary Americans of all ages and backgrounds.
Our generation is uniquely positioned to put these new opportunities to use. Defined by a sense of national unity and common purpose since 9/11, we have reversed downward trends of civic engagement and have been volunteering in far greater numbers in the last decade than in previous years.
Take a look around campus. Hundreds of students regularly participate in community service through the 40 organizations sponsored by the Center for Social Justice. From prison outreach to student mentoring, Georgetown students have demonstrated unwavering commitment to giving back.
According to the Career Education Center, about 3 percent of graduates in the class of 2008 went on to volunteer or serve in the military. In fact, Teach for America was the single largest employer among the survey respondents.
Let us raise this bar and excel at new heights. We can, and must, do better.
For every one graduate who went on to work in the public or nonprofit sector in 2008, four more went on to work in banking or consulting. Georgetown fails to do justice to its great tradition of service by sending fewer and fewer graduates into the public sector. The number of students who reported public sector work in 2007 is almost half that of 2005.
The university should establish a fund that would offer debt forgiveness for students who work for nonprofits or in public service after graduation. Tufts University was the first to begin such a program in 2006 as a way to counteract the public sector brain drain that has resulted from skyrocketing student loans. This fund could also match the educational stipends for students in service programs to provide a greater incentive.
An expansion of service-learning opportunities, a greater emphasis on community service in the admissions process and increased publicity of resources available for students who want to volunteer are other important improvements that should be made at Georgetown.
Under the provisions of the Serve America Act, 30 institutions will be honored with the distinction of “Campus of Service” annually and awarded with additional funding for their initiatives. This should be among our university’s goals over the next year – something that we all should work toward.
While the federal government and our own university ought to help us in this mission, it is up to us as individual citizens, as Gandhi told us, to be the change we want to see in the world. At this defining moment in our history, I hope we will rise to the challenge in even more ways and in even greater numbers than those before us, with our problems too many and our potential too great to sit on the sidelines. Indeed, as President Obama reminded us in his inaugural address, “this is the price and promise of citizenship.”
Nick Troiano is a sophomore in the College, a member of the Georgetown chapter of ServeNext and vice speaker of the GUSA Senate.
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