Rebecca A. Davis
George Mason High School
Falls Church, VA
Second Place Winner, Virginia
Service with a Smile
Why should young Americans have to spend a year of their lives engaged in public service helping people that they may not even know? The answer is simple. The United States needs more civic engagement from its citizens. While a year of public service might be an intrusion into the lives of young people, it is an intrusion that is necessary to maintain the United States’ role as the leading democracy in the world. A democracy flourishes only if its citizens are willing to sacrifice for the good of their society. As John F. Kennedy said, as a U.S. citizen you must “ask not what your country can do for you,” but rather “ask what you can do for your country.”1 A year of public service would teach young people the importance of civic engagement and bring the benefits of that engagement to the U.S. and the world.
Imagine how much our country would benefit if all young adults were to dedicate one year of their lives to public service at home or abroad. Citizens choosing to serve in organizations in their own communities would develop closer ties to those communities and gain a better understanding of the issues that they face. Those experiences would put our young people in a position to devise and implement solutions to the problems of their local communities, such as homelessness, hunger, illiteracy and lack of economic opportunity. Rather than feeling helpless about the obstacles around them, these young adults would feel empowered by their public service experience to effect change. Along the way, young public servants would develop relationships with the people they were serving that would continue long after the year of service ended, enriching their lives and the lives of those around them for years to come.
If public service were to include an opportunity to serve as a volunteer abroad, using a model similar to the Peace Corps, there would be a lasting impact on the world. U.S. citizens serving abroad could help strengthen our relationships with foreign nations. Americans would be seen as compassionate, willing to get involved not just by giving money, but also by physically participating to help improve the lives of others. A participant choosing to go abroad would be immersed in, and have a better understanding of the foreign culture in which he or she served and gain a better understanding of the world and of how the United States is perceived in the world. And as a representative of the United States, a young person serving abroad could be an excellent good will ambassador for our country.
In addition to improvements to U.S and international communities, public service would provide incredible opportunities for young adults to mature as individuals and citizens. If public service were required, each person should have the chance to serve in an area of interest to them. A young American thinking of going into the health care field, could do a year of service at a low-income clinic. A person interested in working outdoors could work in one of our national or state parks. Someone thinking about pursing a career in engineering could be placed with the Army Corps of Engineers. Public service experience in areas of interest to them would help young adults find or narrow down an area that they might wish to pursue further in their education or career paths, and perhaps provide practical skills they can later use in the workforce. This would lead to higher job satisfaction in the long run. As the number of people satisfied with their careers would grow, so too would productivity and economic strength. As an added benefit, exposing young people to public service and the satisfaction that comes with working for others might lead to more people choosing careers in public service.
Another opportunity for individual growth in these young Americans would come from meeting people they would not otherwise have met, including other volunteers and supervisors, and importantly, the people being served. Those working with people in need of assistance would have the chance to view life from the perspective of their clients and to gain a sense of purpose by working for the benefit of others. If their work is successful, they would learn how much of a difference they can make in someone’s life. Public service would also benefit the psychological health of volunteers. Results from studies indicate that students who participate in service “have shown increases in positive feelings and mental health, and decreases in depression and stress.”2 Students who engage in public service are not only better able to deal with stress, but they are also more likely to graduate from college. A study done by Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora showed that, for high school students, involvement in “community service to fulfill class-requirements significantly enhanced the average odds of college graduation by 22 percentage points.”3 Therefore, required public service should result in lower mental health care expenses and higher graduation college rates, greatly benefitting our country.
Although some people would argue that forcing young Americans to do public service would be an unnecessary intrusion, in the United States, we already perform certain required duties to keep our society running smoothly. We are asked to go to school until our teen years so that we can get an education that will help us to be informed citizens and productive members in the job market. We are required to pay taxes to collectively fund a variety of governmental services. There are also times when citizens are called upon to serve as jurors on cases that can take days, weeks, months or even longer to reach a verdict. In the past, “[f]rom World War II to the final days of Vietnam, nearly every young man in the country faced the prospect of being drafted into the Army.”4 The draft was necessary to help protect our nation. Serving on a jury, fighting for one’s country, and voting for its leaders are all necessary duties of a citizen. With a little work, committing a year of time to community service could be added to that list.
Of course, there would be issues that arise when implementing this mandate. First, young Americans would need to be given some flexibility as to when they engage in this activity. Ideally, volunteers would enlist between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Second, there would have to be some small stipend to make it financially possible for these young Americans to serve. We could follow the example of AmeriCorps, which currently has more than 75,000 volunteers doing public service.5 AmeriCorps provides stipends that are based on the Federal poverty line in the region of service.6 In cases where housing is provided by the organization, then the stipends would be much smaller, as they are in AmeriCorps under similar circumstances. Third, in order to make this opportunity more intriguing to people who would not normally choose to do public service, there would have to be some quality effort put into matching the interests of the participant with the place where they would work. Finally, there would have to be exemptions available for people who cannot do public service because of health issues or other good reasons.
A vibrant, healthy democracy requires broad participation and engagement of its citizens to ensure that all share its burdens and benefits. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”7 We need to participate in our democracy not only by voting, serving on juries, and paying taxes, but also by actively serving our country, especially by reaching out to those in need. A year of public service would help young Americans forge bonds with their communities or create new connections abroad, expand their social and career networks, enhance their professional experiences, make better career choices, and feel empowered to act as citizens. Far from an unnecessary intrusion, a year of required public service would soon become a sustaining force for our democracy and a precedent for a more caring and peaceful world.
Kennedy, John F. "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You." Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
"What Are the Benefits of Service Learning?" Benefits of Student Participation in Community Service. The Regents of the University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.
Davila, Alberto, and Maria T. Maura. "An Assessment of Civic Engagement and Educational Attainment." The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, Jan. 2007. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Moody, R. Norman. "After 40 Years, Return of Military Draft Not in Sight." USA Today. Gannett, 23 July 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
"AmeriCorps Fact Sheet." Corporation for National and Community Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
Granger, Amelia. "Living on A Stipend, Part I: AmeriCorps and City Year." NerdWallet News. SYTYCFinance, 15 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
Roosevelt, Theodore. "Speaking Loudly." Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site. Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.