What it Means to Serve

by Alessandra Necamp | 5/13/09 1:08am

Isaiah Berg recently addressed service and our national interest, arguing that mandatory service is not a promising prospect ("A Call to Serve," May 5) -- and I agree. But in offering an alternative to mandatory service, Berg confuses service with good business practices. Berg also fails to note the benefits of President Obama's call to serve, and of his subsequent signing of "The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act." Thus, a clarification is necessary.

On April 21, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, following his call to serve -- the signing of this act could not come soon enough. The Serve America Act does not involve mandatory service -- in fact, Berg's argument is only based on the suggestion from a few that it should. Mandatory service can work -- however, I use a definition of service that includes selfless volunteering. Making service mandatory would invalidate the notion of volunteering, even if it provided some benefits.

The Serve America Act's purpose is to make service and volunteering easier. For example, Dartmouth offers numerous organizations and resources, all of which help to connect us to community needs. These resources will be harder to access after leaving the College, which is where the Serve America Act comes in. It has created a national clearinghouse online where users can search for opportunities in their community -- just the other day I found several mentoring opportunities for volunteers both in Hanover and in my hometown.

The Serve America Act also increases the incentives to serve. Berg says the idea of the Serve America Act is to "pressure our selfish generation to give back," but actually, the act is designed to make it easier to give back. That is, it aims to do things like create high school programs through which those who complete community service would earn academic credit. The act also creates monetary incentives to serve, such as a $500 education award to high school students who use their summers for service. This award attempts to make it so that service is not limited to those who have the financial means to volunteer. Education awards aren't necessarily making service a paid opportunity -- rather, they cover costs that volunteering can't pay for. In this way, choosing between service and a job might mean more than just choosing between paycheck sizes.

As with any policy, there are flaws inherent in the Serve America Act. It reaches for ideals that may not be attainable in reality, and the way in which the act accounts for community need is not clear. Yet Berg insists that we expand our definition of service to include entrepreneurship. He lists FedEx and Microsoft, presumably because of the "good" generated by the jobs they create, and the boon to the economy that these companies offer. I agree with Berg's notion that we are "thirsting for entrepreneurial spirit," and that nurturing such a spirit must be a priority for President Obama. But the growth of innovative small businesses in the private sector should not be part of the definition of service, nor should it be confused with service or volunteerism.

Service, above all else, is about considering and serving the needs of the community. Business may incorporate the needs of the community, but business is about making profits. To equate businesses like Microsoft or FedEx with the president's call to serve fails to consider why service is so important -- such a notion assumes that service is about us and not those we serve.

Service, creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit do not have to be mutually exclusive. Often, these concepts go hand in hand to create such programs as Grassroot Soccer. The real point is that we, as students and global citizens, should be encouraged not just to serve, but to engage all of our talents in serving, including our ability to think outside the box and generate creative solutions.

Service and volunteerism are worthy of continued discussion -- not just at Dartmouth, but across the world. Why do we serve and why should we? Personally, I really hate that the economic downturn has made me feel like I have no control over what's happening to those around me. Maybe our impact is miniscule, but to me, service is the opportunity to better our nation's schools, to improve health care and to create a more green and sustainable future. This is the point of the president's call to serve: that each of us individually can take time to serve in ways that will provide tangible benefits to our community, our nation and our world.