The call of service


Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

It was near the end of my first, unproductive year of college that I realized that I needed a change.

My first taste of freedom had gone badly, and I was about to be placed on academic probation. Yet I decided that my problem wasn't being away from home, it was that I hadn't gone far enough.

I joined AmeriCorps with the hopes that I could see some of the country and do some good in the process. It delivered on both counts.

AmeriCorps is a domestic version of the Peace Corps, so my experience in the program comes to mind every year when the Peace Corps releases its college rankings. The University of Florida was the No. 1 source of recruits in the latest rankings, released last week.

The rankings got me thinking: Why not require all young people to do at least a year of some sort of national service?

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal floated the same idea during a recent appearance on “Face the Nation.” He touted the benefits of bringing people from different economic backgrounds together in a shared experience.

I know about McChrystal's appearance because an Independent Florida Alligator columnist blasted it.

The columnist argued that the idea that anyone “owes anything to the nation in which they are born by the mere accident of their birth is repugnant and contrary to the founding principles of the U.S.”

Gee, and here I thought that giving back to your country was a longstanding American value.

It seems that a good number of UF students feel that way, based on participation in the Peace Corps and other service programs such as Teach for America.

UF's top Peace Corps ranking can be attributed in good part to Amy Panikowski, campus recruiter for the program until the dumb decision was made to stop funding her position.

But there's something else about UF students that makes them suited for the program. Maybe they're just an ambitious bunch that wants pad their resumes, but I know from my AmeriCorps experience that most folks join such programs for something more.

There were good and bad parts of my time in AmeriCorps.

Building homes in hurricane-stricken Homestead and helping low-income folks claim the Earned Income Tax Credit in Boston were worthy service projects.

But I'm still not sure why we cleaned street signs in Savannah. Clearing out storm drains in New Orleans might have provided water-quality benefits, but was torture.

In the end, the program allowed me to grow up a little and in the process earn an academic award that paid for a year's worth of college.

That's where I fall on the idea of requiring service: It's better to expand services programs to provide every young person with the chance to serve at least one year and help pay for college.

In an era when college costs are soaring and civic engagement is needed, it seems like a good way to address both issues.

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