National service: a new American rite of passage?

June 27, 2013 12:00 PM

Heide Winston

The message of the 21st Century National Service Summit in Aspen, Colo., was loud and clear — national service is key to national strength. Top leaders from various sectors, including Tulane University President Scott Cowen and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, gathered earlier this week to present and discuss the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project plan of action to make national service a universal expectation and a new American rite of passage.

Scott Cowen and Jonathan Greenblatt

Tulane President Scott Cowen, left, speaks with Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, at the National Service Summit in Aspen, Colo. (Photo by Daniel Bayer)

The Franklin Project, a new initiative of the Aspen Institute, aims to create a civilian national service system that will offer at least one million full-time service opportunities for young adults aged 18 to 28 every year. Cowen, who serves on the Franklin Project Leadership Council and co-facilitated a session at the summit, is enthusiastic about this vision.

“At Tulane, we are experiencing firsthand the significance and positive impact of public service and civic engagement. Elevating the role of service in our society will undoubtedly transform many individuals and communities,” Cowen says.

Concrete ideas for higher education include creating a national service certification system which would recognize colleges and universities for offering national service positions and establishing a “bridge year” for students who are interested in full-time service opportunities before they enter higher education or as they transition to their careers. The plan also encourages colleges and universities to put a greater emphasis on service by providing credit to students for their year of service and offering tuition incentives or enrollment preference for national service participants.

Given current efforts around service learning on many campuses across the country, the Franklin Project’s plan is a logical next step that builds on demands from students and communities, says Cowen.

“Service isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s a smart investment, because the experience enhances personal and professional development and fosters civic leadership. Making service a common experience will benefit all of us,” Cowen says.

Heide Winston is the special assistant to Tulane President Scott Cowen for civic engagement and research.

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