I remember the day clearly.
It was my father’s birthday. I was in 3rd grade, and our teacher had wheeled in the TV cart for our weekly French lesson. Not long into the lesson, the show was interrupted with the announcement that the President had been shot.
My classmates and I were sent out on the playground for recess. My guess is that the teachers were overcome with grief and needed some time to collect their thoughts. Then my friend’s mother picked us up from school, and I remember a sense of pervasive sadness.
November 22, 1963 is a date that lives in the hearts and minds of my generation. We can all remember where we were when we heard the news that JFK had been shot. The 50th anniversary of that tragic day in Dallas has led many of us to think back to that moment and consider the legacy of Kennedy’s brief presidency.
For many of us, the line most indelibly linked to John F. Kennedy is a sentence he uttered towards the end of his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I remember hearing this as a child and realizing its power even then.
Today, many fear that we’ve forgotten Kennedy’s perspective and that our youth don’t understand it. We refer to today’s young adults as the Millennial generation. Some have characterized this generation as self-centered and entitled, asking what others can do for them, rather than what they can do for others.
Although there is surely some truth in this description, as a college president, I have developed a different perspective. The students I interact with on a daily basis bring a passion and energy for public service that has earned my respect. Earlier this year, Gettysburg College was one of five colleges and universities in the nation to be named a Presidential Awardee in the 2013 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll — the highest honor an institution can receive for its commitment to public service. More than 70 percent of Gettysburg students collectively spent more than 72,000 hours engaged in service-related activities last year.
In addition to providing needed service, our students also engage with community members to facilitate partnerships and alliances that foster social justice and positive personal and community change. Our students want to make a difference in their local communities, and they want to make a difference in the world.
Founder of the DC Central Kitchen and the L.A. Kitchen Robert Egger hit it on the nose when he told our 2010 graduates, “From where I stand, you are ‘Generation Now.’ This country needs you now. This world needs you now. Behind you are millions of younger peers who are looking to you to break new ground.”
Our graduates understand this responsibility. Nearly 25% of Gettysburg College alumni work in education, government service, or social work. Many more take on volunteer roles to advance their communities. Our college has been recognized as a top producer of workers for the Peace Corps, an organization created by JFK.
More than ever, our nation needs graduates who are passionate about education, who are eager to work in the nonprofit sector, and who will find ways to engage in public service—professionally or personally. Today’s colleges must provide that preparation and that inspiration. Today’s colleges must put the question posed by JFK in front of their students every day: what can you do for your country, for your community, for the world?
This blog post also appeared in the Huffington Post on November 22, 2013.