A Call For Service For the New Millennium

In December, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued this call as he addressed the first members of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America):

"It is characteristic of America that we meet our great challenges. We meet them in war and we meet them in peace, through calling on the idealism and the love of country of all of our people. They have always responded, and the challenge has always been met."

The newly created VISTA was then a centerpiece of Johnson's War on Poverty, and is now one of the longest-running and most successful national service programs in the country. Half a century later, Johnson's words continue to resonate, as 21st century challenges demand ever bolder responses and a renewed civic commitment.

The current generation of young Americans stands ready to meet those challenges. They have the ability and motivation to confront society's most pressing problems at home and around the globe, and many of them are clamoring for the chance to do so. In fact, many more wish to serve than we can currently accommodate. As former chair of the bipartisan Corporation for National and Community Service, I know firsthand that hundreds of thousands of young people who apply each year for national service programs like AmeriCorps are turned away because of limited capacity and resources. Not only is the country robbed of their skill, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm, but we fail these young people who feel a genuine desire to roll up their sleeves and solve problems in their communities, our nation, and the world.

We need to recognize the power of national and international service to transform lives and communities, and we need to align our priorities with that potential. It is not enough to merely promote service and to create capacity for those who wish to serve. We need to revive the spirit of service in our nation and renew the idea that every citizen has the responsibility to serve. National or international service, military or civilian, should be an expected rite of passage for all young Americans. It should be integrated into their personal and academic development. It should be seen as an essential component of young people's growth as citizens and leaders, and it should be structured to ensure positive outcomes for both young people and the communities they serve.

Leaders across the nation, from policymakers to educators, can play a role in making this happen. At Tufts University, we recently announced an innovative initiative: Tufts 1+4. This program will allow select undergraduates to perform a year of service at home or abroad before embarking on their formal academic years. When needed, the university will provide financial support so that students of all backgrounds may take advantage of this opportunity. Housed within the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, a national leader in civic renewal, Tufts 1+4 will prepare students for community work, integrate academics with their service, and nurture their development as leaders when they return to campus.

Engaging young people in service will provide a transformational experience at a pivotal time in their lives. They will have the chance to participate in something greater than themselves that will have a lasting effect on the world around them. That was certainly the case for me. As a young community organizer in Lowell, Massachusetts, I spent seven years in a working class, industrial city trying to build a movement that would change America. I acquired valuable experience, skills, and a new perspective on the challenges faced by people trying to build lives for themselves and their children. That experience informed my life's work.

Everyone who serves has a similarly inspiring story and finds the experience equally meaningful. For those whose conscience and consciousness are aroused by injustice, serving transforms our concerns and ignites our motivations to act. Whether we are community organizers, nurses, business leaders, or social workers, we benefit by contributing our values and our efforts.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that "the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." We can offer the youth of our country an opportunity to find themselves in such a meaningful way. And we can offer the nation the inexhaustible energy and boundless talent of a generation that seeks to leave its mark on the present.