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Topic / Democracy and Governance

A New Draft for America? A Service Year by Young Americans Would Protect America and Maybe Heal It Along the Way

In my last job in the Army, I commanded 400 young soldiers. They came from every corner of America: a farmer from rural Oregon, a father of two from inner city Memphis, and even aspiring citizens from countries far away. Military service converged our paths and intertwined our lives together, weaving another layer upon the fabric of America. Service has that unique feature – bringing together diverse people and uniting them to tackle big problems, a potential panacea for America’s dwindling civic health.  

Many of my friends recall their time in service fondly. One from Peace Corps, while teaching children in Indonesia math and science had to ward off evil spirits lest her pupils suffer from fainting spells, and they were contagious. Another friend brightens when he speaks about his time at Teach for America, learning just recently, that a fourth grader they taught ten years ago got into their top choice college. 

The idea of a service year for young Americans has been floated around for decades but with no substantive action.1 A definitive first step to push young Americans in a year of service starts with encouraging colleges to require them before matriculation or to weigh the experience heavily in admissions decisions. 

Many young people already are interested in a gap year or enchanted by the idea of service, to make the great leap and devote one year of their lives to serve. Colleges would gain more mature and experienced students open to new experiences. A young student’s first memory outside their parent’s nest wouldn’t be at a frat party, but rather the time they helped build trails in the American wild or helped support the elderly age with dignity. And American society will grow stronger, more interconnected with faith that our youth will be stronger citizens than we were. 

The spark must come from our colleges, long a gateway for our young people to mature, develop, and grow on their own. With the end of affirmative action, our colleges, and especially the most elite institutions like Harvard, can ensure a diverse student body that is open to new experiences and primed to learn. Colleges struggle to find their role in moderating public discourse, but with a service year requirement, can take advantage of a more mature student: repairing the fabric of American democracy through emphasizing open discourse and good-faith citizenship, where we are primed to learn and listen from different views, not just shout them down.2 

Service years work. In 2017 after Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria battered the coasts, 2,000 AmeriCorps members were deployed across the region, from Texas to Puerto Rico, representing all 50 states.3 The AmeriCorps Urban Safety program helped reduce crime in Detroit, saving $378 million, money that can be used to help revitalize neighborhoods and build up communities.4 States like Iowa and Minnesota are building their own programs, improving literacy and helping students achieve literary outcomes. These volunteers are making a difference, building community, and will become better citizens for it.  

Critics of a service year point to the costs and burden to both the students and the host organizations. Service may take many forms, and almost all of them should be compensated – especially for a year. There are already over 65,000 paid opportunities available and with a steadier stream of young people, those opportunities will grow. The Serve America Act passed by Congress in 2009 attempted to open greater opportunities to serve but failed to get funding past 2011. Instead, public-private partnerships should fill the gap, aiming to steer America through the disfunction that has gripped the past decade, something a service year will help solve through strengthening communities and building a shared civic experience. 

The US military remains the most trusted public institution and one of the main reasons is the qualities of those who serve.5 I saw those qualities every day. During a conversation around race and the murder of George Floyd, the farmer from rural Oregon, a young white soldier, listened intently to the pain and fear his peers expressed about being black in America. To them, he spoke plainly that he couldn’t imagine their fear, but wanted to earnestly listen and learn. Or when the father of two from Memphis, revealed to his classmates he joined the army to hide from his former gangland life and to keep his family safe. The soldiers around him all leapt at the chance to meet his two young sons and promised to watch after him and his family wherever they were sent next. Our soldiers chose to serve our country and ended up serving each other. 

Our country seems divided on countless issues, but we have much more in common than we think. Under the specter of two regional conflicts and growing competition in our bipolar world, our country must strengthen its leadership role in the world, and it starts with our colleges. A service year would bring together the energy of our young people and put it to good use, but more importantly, it would help intertwine our lives together and stronger. As Maya Angelou said, “It’s very hard to hate someone if you look them in the eye and recognize them as a human being.” It’s time to look each other in the eye now. 

  1. Stanley McChrystal, “Stanley McChrystal: Every American Should Serve for One Year,” Time, June 20, 2017, ↩︎
  2. Ryan Chatelain, “Harvard President Faces Backlash over Response to Hamas Attacks,” Backlash over Harvard president’s response to Hamas attacks, October 11, 2023, ↩︎
  3. “AmeriCorps Members from All 50 States Respond to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria,” AmeriCorps, accessed February 6, 2024, ↩︎
  4. “Impact Evaluation of the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program (2018),” AmeriCorps, accessed February 6, 2024, ↩︎
  5. Colman Andrews, “What Public Institution Do Americans Trust More than Any Other? Hint: It’s Not the Media,” USA Today, July 10, 2019, ↩︎