By Peter Hulbert

In an impromptu speech on the steps of the University of Michigan’s Union in 1960, then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy asked a group of students:

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.”

The speech is cited as the beginning of United States Peace Corps and civilian national service. President Kennedy was right, the Peace Corps continues to allow America’s best and brightest to serve their country, and national service has continued to expand domestically with the formation of AmeriCorps some 30 years later.

After two years with City Year, I followed Kennedy’s call to contribute another two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I was challenged to build youth programs with limited resources in a rural marginalized sugarcane cutting community. Those two years were some of the most difficult yet rewarding of my life. I was able to build relationships with people and have a community which I now consider a second home. All of which would not have been possible without the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps.

 

Even after giving more than 4 years of service to my country I am still overburdened with my student loans. While I was serving, all my loans stayed in forbearance and collected interest. I did receive education awards at the end of my AmeriCorps service of just under $5000 per year, but in this era of ever rising tuition costs this is just a drop in the bucket.

President Kennedy’s words are just as true as they were almost 60 years ago. We have a great many problems that are facing our nation, and no shortage of youth wanting to step up and serve if given the opportunity. But a bold effort must be made to allow for this to happen. That is why I call for compensating each year of those who are willing to serve their country with a year of tuition paid. Providing this compensation would open service as an opportunity for lower income graduates who would like to service, but are overburdened by the reality of their debt. As President Obama stated at the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, “…all those who serve their country through AmeriCorps, they don’t just believe in, but live out a fundamental truth, and that is that people who love their country can change it.” I had the privilege to be part of the change for 4 years, but others should not have to make the choice between serving their country or serving their debt.