The University Record, March 20, 2000

Wofford challenges students to lead the way in community service activities

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Harris Wofford (left), CEO of the Corporation for National Service, led swearing-in ceremonies last week for the U-M's newest student members of AmeriCorps. In accepting their new responsibilities, the students pledged to 'get things done for America—to make our people safer, smarter and healthier. I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities. Faced with apathy, I will take action. Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground. Faced with adversity, I will persevere. I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond. I am an AmeriCorps member. And I'm going to get things done.' Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle
“How can we take this pilot program and ignite the whole?” Harris Wofford challenged students last week, noting that a pilot is not just a light that comes on and snuffs out again, but something that ignites a larger and more meaningful flame.

Wofford, the chief executive officer of the Corporation for National Service, spent March 14 at the U-M talking with students interested in community service and participating in formal discussions with representatives from the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, America Reads, Project Community and Project SERVE. He also met with University students, staff and administrators to talk about the importance of community service to both the education of those who serve and to the communities in which they work.

Wofford outlined six challenges to the young people who, he says, have the “power to fulfill America’s promise,” the power to “ignite the whole.”

“This is a good challenge to you, at this University, to respond to and to lead the way.”

Those challenges are:

  • Including service in the curriculum at early ages so that the “art of citizenship” becomes as important to education as reading, writing and counting. The concept that every student should learn through service to the community is as vital a part of education as any of the basic skills, Wofford said.

    During a later discussion period, students debated whether community service should be included as part of a required citizenship course at the university level. Most of those attending the afternoon roundtable dialogue agreed that it didn’t make sense to require community service at that level, but agreed with Wofford’s emphasis on the importance of including community involvement at earlier ages.

  • Returning the work/study program to its original purpose. When the work/study program was conceived, he noted, it was envisioned as putting students to work in public service organizations. “Colleges and universities considered themselves to be public service organizations,” he said, and it was not long before a great majority of the students enrolled in work/study programs were working for those institutions. “We now have one million work/study students in this country. It’s in your hands,” Wofford challenged.

  • Spreading the idea that middle and high school students can gain as much as elementary school students from any interaction that puts the older student in the role of tutor. “This idea has to be spread, and it can be by college students helping to organize high school and middle schools. This kind of service [for high school and middle school students] can be recognized by a Presidential Service Award, like the President’s Physical Fitness awards, for 100 hours of service.”

  • Developing Teaching for America, a talented teaching corps program that would award a master’s degree after two years of post-baccalaureate service teaching in minority or economically underprivileged schools.

  • Close the great digital divide. “There will be a social earthquake,” Wofford warned, “as this gap gets wider. We need people, computer-literate people, to close this gap. This will be the greatest frontier of community service in the future.” The gap between those who have computers readily available and those who do not is widening, he said, and has “closed the door for 25 percent of the people.”

  • Looking beyond service as part of the curriculum and into “an intense experience” that would last for about one year. Wofford commended programs like the Alternative Spring Break program and Habitat for Humanity, but said that those who make a commitment to serve for a year gain more as well as give more.

    His thoughts were echoed by representatives from the Peace Corps, Project Community, Michigan Neighborhood AmeriCorps Program and Project SERVE, who all told of their own experiences in community service and of the rewards.

    Kourtney Rice, who is in her second term of service through the AmeriCorps program, said that one of the reasons she chose community service was that not doing so would “deprive the community of a vital service it needs to survive.” She talked about the support her community gave her and the need to pay it back, but also said, “It is not strictly out of obligation. I have learned as much or more as they do from the people I have helped. The teamwork, leadership skills and mentorship are lessons I will apply in the rest of my life.”

    Wofford helped launch the Peace Corps in 1961, worked with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to develop the National and Community Service Act of 1990 and, later, helped draft the National and Community Service Trust Act that created AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National Service.

    His visit was sponsored by the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning and the Michigan Neighborhood AmeriCorps Program.

    News and Information Services intern Jill Siegelbaum contributed to this article.