Recently I walked the Laurel Falls Trail in majestic Great Smoky Mountains. In awe of the landscape and enamored with the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project, I contemplated the future of national service in America. While climbing the mountain I reminisced on the past holding in high regard the brave efforts of government and individuals who made what was being torn down into a national treasure.
In the late 19th century, logging was a major industry in the mountains. Clear-cutting was quickly destroying the forest. Yet, visitors and locals banded together to raise money for preservation of the land. The process was slow and oftentimes frustrating, but persistence won the day. The park was officially established on June 15, 1934. Then, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and other federal organizations made trails and other infrastructure improvements to the park. 80 years later, nearly 10 million people visit the park each year. This month, my family enjoyed the majesty of nature’s creation and humankind preservation for the first time. This is part of the legacy of the great generations who have come before us — working hard because they knew it was the good and right thing to do for their children and for our country.
As we embark on the first great service movement of the 21st century, we can look back to the land conservation movement that established the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for guidance. Almost a century ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps mobilized three million young, unemployed men to improve our public lands. Our nation needed our men for service to our country and our men needed the good work.
The millennial generation is clearly seeking our support in similar ways. They want to serve their country by being in service to fellow citizens. In a recent post “No”- Nearly One Million Times, Michael Brown, CEO and Co-Founder of City Year, highlighted the enormous applicant pool for far too few opportunities to serve. In 2012, millennials submitted over 582,000 applications to AmeriCorps. 86 percent of applicants were turned away and nearly one million AmeriCorps applications denied positions in 2011 and 2012.
The volunteer generation has come to adulthood. They are bringing skills learned in the classroom and practiced in the community into the workplace and, yet, more often than not, they are settling into jobs that fit their skillset but not their budding passion. They want to launch their careers in national service — such a noble pursuit. We must act in order to give these graduates the opportunity to serve their country.
How can higher education help answer the call to action to create one million national service positions by 2023?
No college is completely alike. No curriculum quite the same. No student body seeking quite the same education, but colleges and universities can accomplish some of the following: creating curriculum and programs to educate for citizenship, putting dollars to research on citizen engagement, convening the nation’s great thought leaders on campuses to discuss emerging practices in national service by partnering with NGOs to credential national service members and by focusing career development efforts on national service.
At William & Mary, we are exploring all of these suggested changes. President Reveley’s recent post, Nurturing Citizen Leaders Starts in Higher Education, highlights one of our new programs, enlisting dedicated graduates in service to the community, each with specific jobs designed to meet pressing local needs. We are currently discussing how William & Mary can help lead a national conversation and subsequent re-design of college programs and activities. Why not be bold in pursuing your civic engagement aspirations? Is it not our obligation to do just that?
The Franklin Project hopes to have national service become a common expectation and common opportunity for all Americans in order to address the nation’s most pressing challenges. We must unite the passion of the millennials, their skillsets gained in classroom and in community with their desire to work to solve these needs. We must give our students and our graduates the chance to serve their country. If we do this, students of this generation will someday be viewed as some of the greatest this country has ever witnessed. The gift to allow them the chance to pursue such a calling will be our legacy.