Let's Talk About National Service

May 5, 2016 | Samantha Vinograd and Morgan Ortagus
 

It is not sexy to talk about bipartisan agreement these days, but we want to share a secret.  We have found an issue both parties can agree on: national service.  Let’s have a real conversation about how to get involved.

When we met in Baghdad in 2007, we were both in our mid-20s but from wildly different backgrounds and political persuasions. The stark differences between us made us unlikely allies in the Green Zone, but what drew us there was the same: a desire to serve.  Our time in Iraq made this northeast liberal and southern conservative the best of friends and profoundly changed how we feel about our nation, its leaders, and the policies that affect us all. 

Today’s interconnected, mile-a-minute world lends itself to rapid decisions – jobs, opinions, and political sound bites that make waves over Twitter and Snapchat. The 2016 election should give all of us, however, a reason to pause to consider America’s place in the world, and what we can do to make it better. 

One clear path to achieving that goal is by cementing our commitment to service and by making serving our nation the norm – both on and beyond the battlefield. Presidential candidates should provide concrete proposals for enhancing and expanding opportunities for national service.  

Hillary Clinton has already made this part of her campaign – by proposing to triple AmeriCorps and pledging to build on this proposal going forward. Prominent Republicans have been vocal on this topic, including former Secretary of State Condi Rice and Senator John McCain.

Strengthening our core U.S. assets through service improves our lives here at home but also our overall national security. That’s a life-changing lesson we both learned in Baghdad, but one that can and should, be taught outside a war zone.

“National service” has meant a lot of things since our country’s inception.  At one point, it meant securing our independence and preserving the union. Today, it is oftentimes synonymous with military service and patriotism. Young men and women serving in our armed forces and as diplomats overseas leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history.  We were honored to work alongside them in Baghdad and throughout both of our careers.

Over time, though, other ways to perform service also have come to the fore and helped shape our history – not to mention our future.

Google “national service programs” and you will see just how many choices are out there.  Since 1994, AmeriCorps has launched myriad programs in public safety, health care, and environmental stewardship and today engages more than 75 thousand Americans each year. Teach for America deploys thousands annually, and VISTA Corps members serve in some of our poorest neighborhoods.

Opportunities to serve give those involved a personal stake in America’s future, while simultaneously bettering the nation as a whole. But we can do better.  Now we need to make real options more concrete for a key age group – millennials. 

Through national service, millennials can come together and forge consensus about our national interest in securing and strengthening core U.S. assets, from our parks to our schools and beyond.

More than 20 million students were expected to attend American colleges and universities last fall, according to the Department of Education. Thousands will study abroad, and many more will indicate a desire to go, were financial constraints not an issue. 

What if amidst the European brochures and “semester down under” pamphlets, universities also offered opportunities for students to perform national service and receive college credit? 

Let’s make national service a part of the undergraduate curriculum. We can instill a sense of service in our students from the get go, without penalizing them for taking time to serve.

Our next President can work with the Department of Education to design programs that teach college students what our core assets are and how we should protect them. 

Naturally, there are areas of service that would be off limits due to a need for training, like some forms of teaching. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a plethora of ways to give millennials an earlier taste of the life-changing lessons we learned in Iraq.

We may be staunch members of different political parties, but what we learned in Baghdad can bear fruit for young Americans today.  By investing in our youth and their experiences now, we will also be investing in our collective future. 

No matter which Presidential candidate wins the election, both parties should be able to agree that more young Americans serving the nation would benefit a generation so desperate to give back and make a difference. It certainly worked for us.

The Author is Samantha Vinograd

Samantha Vinograd began her career as the Deputy U.S. Treasury Attaché to Iraq and later held several positions in the Obama Administration, including Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon. She transitioned to the private sector in 2013 where she has worked on global energy and sustainability issues. She is a David E. Rockefeller Fellow at the Trilateral Commission and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Coauthor is Morgan Ortagus

Morgan Ortagus has spent her entire career focused on emerging markets while working in financial services, consulting, and diplomacy.  Morgan was the Deputy U.S. Treasury Attaché to Saudi Arabia, and she is also a U.S. Naval Reserve Officer.  She holds a joint MBA/MA from Johns Hopkins University, with an honors thesis in counterinsurgency.  

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