Supporting lives of service

AspenPanelists

Last week, we were pleased to host on our campus hundreds of leaders from the government, nonprofit sector, military, corporate world, higher education, and media for the Franklin Project’s Summit at Gettysburg. An initiative of the Aspen Institute, the Franklin Project envisions a future in which “at least one year of full-time national service [would] be a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American.” The leaders of the Project have made it their mission to build support and momentum for advancing this idea.

Over the three-day conference, I listened to many inspirational testimonials about the value of service and stories of corporations supporting service by their employees. I was ready to put forward my own suggestions about how we in higher education could support meaningful service opportunities for our students that prepare and motivate them for a post-graduate year of service and for lives of civic engagement. After all, as one of only 5 recipients of the 2013 Presidential Higher Education Award for Community Service, Gettysburg College has been recognized as a leader in the area of public service.

However, when the Summit conversation turned to the role of higher education in this initiative, I was surprised to hear colleges and universities chastised for being “out of step.” Some participants suggested that the full-time year of service should be part of a college degree—that colleges should take on the financial responsibility for this service year, and that academic requirements should be waived or academic credit awarded in exchange for students’ service terms.

These expectations raise some serious questions. Who would provide the financial support for this service year—the students, the government, the college or university, or an outside organization?  How would we accommodate students who increasingly seek to graduate in less than four years? What about the large number of part-time students who work their way through college? What impact would losing one full year of academic instruction have on preparation for graduate or professional school?  Would there be universally accepted competencies associated with completion of the service year, and how would those be evaluated? And what about those students who do not attend a four-year institution?

DCCentralKitchenThese questions point to the complexity—and possible pitfalls—inherent in embedding a year of service within the college degree. I would also argue that the developmental approach to service that we practice at Gettysburg College is at least as effective in instilling habits of service and citizenship as the one-year-of-service model espoused by the Franklin Project.

In short, I think there is more work ahead to determine if one model can fit the social and financial concerns of every young American—let alone every young American attending college. I came away from the Summit with some thoughts about how we as colleges and universities can promote public service as a core value in our next generation of citizens—whether or not the Franklin Project takes root:

  1. Provide our students with opportunities and a meaningful framework for service during their time on our campuses.  As we prepare students for successful professional and civic lives, we must provide them with a holistic understanding of citizenship—as well as an understanding of the systemic issues that call them to serve in the first place. As colleges and universities, we have the unique opportunity to weave themes of public service, social justice, community partnerships, and civic action into our classrooms, co-curricular activities, and campus conversations.

    For example, many of our students volunteer at our college-run Campus Kitchen, which provides meals to families in need. While our students’ work to provide food is crucial, we are also committed to educating them about the social and legislative roots of hunger, to connecting them with community members experiencing hunger who can share their stories, and to providing them with perspectives that they will carry into their civic lives beyond Gettysburg. We hope that this experience will inspire them to lead lives of advocacy, voting, and continued work to eradicate the issue of hunger in our communities.

  1. Provide clarity about the value of service in the admissions process. Many students, especially first-generation college students, may not know that there are year-long service opportunities that provide a bridge from high school to college—let alone that they are considered and often valued as part of the admissions process. Colleges and universities need to be clear about the role of service in admissions decisions, as well as the option for enrollment deferral for students committing to public service prior to enrolling in college.
  1. Celebrate alumni who are engaged in service. Our students (and their parents!) need to know that careers in service are valuable. All too often—especially in the face of debates about the value of a college degree—colleges are pressured to elevate alumni who have achieved financial success. While these individuals and their achievements are noteworthy and commendable, we must also send a clear message to our students that lives committed to community, nation, and world, are equally valuable.  
  1. Help our students find post-graduation service opportunities and careers. Once our students see the value of service, we need to connect them with opportunities to serve. Our career centers and counselors should be just as familiar with AmeriCorps and Peace Corps application processes as they are with law school and medical school admissions requirements; our alumni databases should have just as many mentors in the service sectors as they have in the business and finance industries; and our job fairs should include numerous opportunities for post-graduate service programs. Students with loan obligations or graduate school plans should be informed about loan deferment or educational stipends for those who engage in service, and those interested in serving between college and the workplace should receive guidance about service positions that will help them transition smoothly between the two. 
  1. Stress the role that colleges and universities play in promoting public service. Those of you who follow my blog—here and on The Huffington Postknow that I have some very clear ideas about what President Obama should consider as he prepares to launch a federal ratings system for colleges and universities.  If we as a nation truly value the role of public service among our youth, then we must encourage external ranking organizations to consider the inclusion of service in evaluating colleges and universities.

I am proud to say that Gettysburg College has already done much to embrace these strategies.

Colleges and universities are in a unique position to prepare informed and engaged citizens, and to help young people develop strong habits of public service and a sense of civic responsibility.  I admire the goals of the Franklin Project’s leaders and hope that together we can determine and create strong pathways to service and responsible citizenship.

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