Deep Service Leads to Stronger Communities and Nation
During the past two summers, I have had the honor of participating in two national summits planning the launch of the Franklin Project, an initiative of the Aspen Institute. The project is named for the great statesman Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson, Franklin’s biographer, chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute and one of the great thinkers behind the Franklin Project, has noted that Franklin’s enormous civic contributions included the founding of myriad civic associations, including a volunteer fire department, library, hospital, insurance groups and a postal system.
The Franklin Project is an all-too-rare example in contemporary American life in which people from all walks of life—military, philanthropy, education, politics, business and nonprofit sectors—have come together in support of a big idea: to create 1 million opportunities for young people to serve their country through a service year experience. Led by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Franklin Project aspires to democratize the meaning of service—to uphold both military and civilian service as two sides of the same coin. Many great models of civilian service already exist, including AmeriCorps, City Year and Teach for America, but these fine programs accept only a small fraction of qualified applicants. Imagine the great social impact 1 million young people could make on our country working in the fields of K-12 education, conservation and the environment, health and nutrition, veterans support, and many others. In addition to the great national benefits that would result from direct service, participants would develop invaluable “soft skills” that will serve them well in their future careers, including learning about leadership, working on teams, building resiliency and listening carefully to others. Most important of all, we could reignite a spirit and culture of national service that would strengthen our American democracy. Community engagement remains one of the great defining hallmarks of an Elon education.
Students, faculty, staff and alumni strive to promote service as a sustained commitment to communities, local and globally, and to our many community partners. For example, through the Leaders in Collaborative Service (LINCS) program of the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, Elon has formed longterm partnerships with eight community agencies: Cummings High School, the homeless shelter and food bank of Allied Churches of Alamance County, Boys & Girls Club, Burlington Housing Authority, Family Abuse Services, Kopper Top Life Learning Center (horse care and riding lessons for people with disabilities), Positive Attitude Youth Center (after-school tutoring and recreation) and the Salvation Army food pantry. LINCS student coordinators recruit, coordinate and guide volunteers who provide invaluable direct services; many of these students are engaged in one or more of the 57 academic courses at Elon that incorporate service learning as an integral part of the course content, seamlessly connecting knowledge with community engagement—a truly powerful pedagogy. Last year 972 students provided 34,047 hours of service through academic service learning courses. And during Elon’s 125th anniversary year, our community surpassed the goal of 125,000 hours of service contributed by 3,136 students.
Another great example of fostering an ethic of deep service is the Periclean Scholars Program, directed by Professor Tom Arcaro. Founded in 2001 as a part of the Eugene Lang Foundation’s national Project Pericles consortium of colleges and universities committed to developing students’ commitment to social responsibility, Elon Periclean Scholars commit to a three-year project, making an impact on such problems as HIV/ AIDS in Namibia and malnutrition in Honduras. I have been impressed that Periclean Scholars’ experiences have been among the most profound of their undergraduate years at Elon. Of course a committed faculty and staff foster the Elon spirit of service and center it in the academic heart of the university. Assistant Dean Mary Morrison of the Kernodle Center is a leading professional nationally who is committed to helping students gain greater meaning from their academic experiences through service. And faculty members such as Associate Professor of Psychology Alexa Darby, winner of the 2014 Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility for her work with disadvantaged schools in Alamance County, have been leaders in helping their colleagues infuse service learning experiences across the university. The experiences they create for their students are eye-opening, transformative and life-changing.
Given all of the above, it should come as no surprise that Elon is a leading producer of Peace Corp volunteers, Teach for America educators and Fulbright Scholars. We are proud our alumni remain committed to continued public service, living out this cherished Elon ethos in thousands of meaningful ways. I look forward to the great ideals of the Franklin Project being realized and am confident Elon University will have many alumni attracted to the concept of national service, yet another tangible expression of my deeply held conviction that the world needs Elon graduates.
Leo M. Lambert
Download a PDF version of this article.