Commentary: Reimagining our commitment to national service

Our nation’s young people face several challenges: the high cost of college and the burden of student loans, concerns about how to develop the skills and experience to launch a successful career, and our country’s bitter partisan divisions that make many question our future.

I have long been confident that the answers to these and a number of other problems may lie in something that helped previous generations of Americans come together, make a difference and afford a higher education: national service.

For decades, military service, now in combination with the GI Bill, has connected veterans to skills, a better understanding of their fellow citizens, and access to higher education.

My dad once told me that he didn’t fully understand what it meant to be an American until he was serving in the Army, responsible for a squad of men who were black and white, Northern, Southern, Western, Catholic, and Protestant. “We had to live together, work together, and serve together,” he said, explaining how military service shaped his life and deepened his commitment to our country and its citizens.

Sen. Chris Coons

Rewarding civilian service can accomplish the same thing for a new generation willing to contribute their time and talents toward the betterment of our country.

I grew up in a small town, where we had a volunteer fire company that literally had a third of the town as members, and where in the middle of the night, the siren would go off. Thirty years later, when I was county executive, someone moved in from out of state and called my office to complain about the sound.

“What’s that siren that keeps going off?” they asked.

I responded, “That’s the sound of volunteerism. That’s the sound of a stranger making himself a neighbor by getting up at two in the morning, jumping into his truck, driving to the local fire company, and responding to an accident or a fire.”

National service members do the same thing — they get up, they respond to the call, and they change lives.

Twenty-five years ago, I got to see the power of national service in action when I had the opportunity to help create and run one of the first national direct AmeriCorps programs. During my time with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, I worked with 150 AmeriCorps members who were serving as mentors and tutors in fifteen cities throughout the country, providing after-school programs and enrichment activities to kids in tough schools where too few students were able to reach their full potential. This experience changed my life, touched my heart, and helped me see what national service can do for our communities and for our country.

Today, we have an opportunity to instill in our younger generations that sense of shared responsibility—to our nation and each other—which is at the very core of what it means to be an American.

That’s why I’ve introduced a bold, robust proposal to strengthen and reimagine our country’s collective commitment to national service while helping to make college more affordable. The America’s Call to Improve Opportunities Now (ACTION) for National Service Act will make it possible for young people throughout the country to earn funds for college tuition by committing to service at home or abroad through programs like AmeriCorps—something I believe has the power to transform our nation, as the G.I. Bill did for generations before us.

This bill, which I introduced with Senators Jack Reed and Tammy Duckworth, has the support of tireless advocates for education like Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, and Richard Blumenthal. It rewards anyone who completes one full year of service with an education benefit equivalent to two years of the average in-state tuition at a public, four-year college, allowing volunteers to earn a full undergraduate tuition with two years of service.

This legislation is an alternative to proposals that offer a free four-year university education to everybody. That doesn’t work for me. Americans want to have some skin in the game. We want to earn our opportunity in this country. This bill would allow young people to earn money for college while giving back to their communities. This will make college more accessible while creating a society that understands and values the importance of investing in our own future through service to others.

ACTION will also make national service a viable and accessible option for young people regardless of their economic background. Too often today, young people who want to serve their communities are unable to do so because of financial roadblocks. The bill would ensure that service is a real option for all by increasing the living stipend to a modest level that is sufficient to allow participation without additional support.

Since 1994, over one million Americans have served through the AmeriCorps program. These Americans have addressed critical community needs in education, economic development, health, and so many other areas. Unfortunately, we haven’t made the space to support everyone who wants to serve. What we’re proposing would increase the number of opportunities for national service on a transformative scale, with the goal of supporting 100,000 positions each year, eventually growing to one million service positions within ten years.

National service engages, inspires, and challenges young Americans. It delivers meaningful support, services, and change to communities across the country that need it.

With the ACTION for National Service Act, national service will be a revolutionary new way for countless young people to build skills and earn their way to a higher education, while improving our communities and our country.

Chris Coons is the junior senator from Delaware in the U.S. Congress.

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