Universal Service

One of the many privileges of serving as director of the Peace Corps was the chance to see first-hand the value and impact service has in our communities, our country and across the globe. A commitment to service maximizes Americans’ spirit of engagement and in so doing embeds civic engagement into our national identity while uniting us all in pursuit of the common good. 

I take that experience and knowledge with me as vice chair for national and public service at the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. This bipartisan, 11-member commission created by Congress is working to find ways to increase participation in military, national, and public service and to review the military selective service process. Our goal is to ignite a national conversation about the importance of service as we develop recommendations for the Congress and the President by March 2020. 

Throughout 2018, we listened and learned from the American people, including RPCVs from across the nation. In Chicago, Leah Eggers, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, joined us at our public meeting as a panelist. She provided insight on how service can be a pathway to employment. As a Volunteer, she worked with the Euphrasia Development Center, a nonprofit focused on helping youth involved in gang activity. Her work in the Philippines led her to serve as the program manager of Youth Workforce Development at Youth Guidance in Chicago. In this position, she manages programs which connect high school students and recent high school graduates to meaningful employment and postsecondary opportunities. 

Another RPCV, Leila Chavez Soliman, served as a panelist at a public meeting in Los Angeles. Leila shared how living and working abroad in Cambodia gave her purpose, showed her possibilities, and helped her become a caring and responsible adult. I know each of you can identify with these qualities. As an English teacher and teacher trainer, she ran leadership workshops inclusive of girls and women as part of the Let Girls Learn Initiative. 

Stories like Leah’s and Leila’s continue to inspire me and my fellow Commissioners. These are the stories that stick with us as we develop recommendations that will encourage every American to be inspired and eager to serve. 

In a country of more the 329 million people, the potential for service is largely untapped. As currently serving Volunteers and RPCVs, you deeply understand and appreciate the value of service. For some of you, Peace Corps was your first service experience. For others, it was the next service opportunity. And for many, it was the beginning of a career dedicated to serve. You have helped create a culture of service, but what about the rest of our nation? 

 

Starting a national conversation

This commission wants to spark a movement and foster a greater ethos of military, national, and public service in the United States. Is it time for universal service in America? What do you think? 

Our commission is considering universal service, which is outlined in our Interim Report released on January 23, 2019. Many Americans value service and are willing to consider a variety of options to encourage or require service of all citizens. For the commission, universal service is a transformative effort to involve many more Americans in military, national, or public service. Some of the approaches we heard on service include:

  • Universal access to service. Everyone with a desire to serve can do so. This would require America to commit enough resources to provide access for individuals and for entities to provide opportunities. 
  • Universal expectation of service. Service stays voluntary but becomes the norm in our country. In this approach every American is expected to serve for a full year to either military, national, and public service. 
  • Universal obligation of service. All Americans are required to serve but have a choice in how they meet this requirement. 

The commission’s considerations and ideas don’t end at universal service. Throughout 2019, the Commission will host public hearings to explore considerations further. In February, the commission hosted a hearing on universal service in Washington, D.C. where we discussed the potential for mandatory service and other ways to inspire and increase participation in service. 

More hearings are scheduled around the nation: national service on March 28 in College Station, Texas; selective service on April 24-25 in Washington, D.C.; public and military service on May 15-16 in Washington, D.C.; and creating an expectation of service on June 20 in Hyde Park, New York.

 

You can join the discussion

I invite you to join us in this important conversation. Our hope is to spark a movement: every American – especially young Americans – inspired and eager to serve. I urge you to talk to your friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues and fellow returned Volunteers about the Commission, your service experience, and the idea of universal service. We want to hear from all of you! 

Share your ideas with the commission through our website on any aspect of the commission’s mission, including any of the following questions:

  • What unmet needs of the nation could be addressed through a formal service program? 
  • What approaches could the nation take to foster a new norm in which giving at least one year of service to the nation becomes an expected rite of passage? 
  • Should high schools transform the final semester of senior year into a hands-on service learning experience? 
  • Should schools offer service-oriented summer projects or a year of service learning? 
  • What benefits could such programs bring to the participants, our communities, and our nation? 
  • How would such programs be structured to ensure they are inclusive and available to all? 

To stay up to date on the commission’s activities and to download the Interim Report, please visit our website at www.inspire2serve.gov. We also invite you to follow the commission on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Medium via @Inspire2ServeUS and join the digital conversation on service by using the hashtag #Inspire2Serve.

Mark Gearan currently serves as the vice chair for National and Public Service for the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. He also serves as director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. Mark Gearan served as the 14th director of the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1999. 

This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2019 issue.