President John F. Kennedy's call to service in the early 1960s inspired a past generation to join the Peace Corps or pursue a career in government, and with the coming-of-age of the post-9/11 generation, some of those ideals are making a comeback.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 made young people more aware of the vulnerability of the United States, according to Chris Myers Asch, a co-founder of the U.S. Public Service Academy, a proposed public-service institution that would be on par with military academies such as West Point. Many also wanted to find a way to serve, aside from joining the military.
"What young people saw was their country in need, and they wanted to do something about that. They wanted people to ask them to serve," said Asch.
A Corporation for National and Community Service report found that volunteering among teenagers has increased dramatically since 1989, with the 16-19 demographic also driving the national volunteering rates to a 30-year high. Educational organizations are the most popular channel for volunteer work among teenagers, with religious organizations coming in second.
Nicole O'Connor, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Notre Dame, is a member of the U.S. Public Service Academy's youth advisory council. She was drawn to the project during a banquet last spring for Coca-Cola Scholars, who are recognized for outstanding scholarship and service.
"It was a good fit for something that was lacking in the nation's education system," she said.
O'Connor, who got her start in volunteering through her Catholic church, started a mentoring program during her senior year that paired students at her suburban Chicago high school with inner-city students. She said that for the post-9/11 generation, service "comes from something instilled in your family."
"It's not such a unique thing anymore. There are so many ways to serve your country," O'Connor said.
Some of the more established outlets for young people to serve also seem to be flourishing. Each spring, programs such as Teach for America and AmeriCorps continue to fill their ranks with new college graduates.
Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates in schools in rural and urban areas, has seen record numbers of applicants in the past couple of years. Last year, Teach for America received 18,000 applications; just 3,000 were accepted.
"They haven't learned their own powerlessness, which is what many people have done. Young people feel they can change the world, and then they do," Asch said.
Kelly Jane McLaughlin, a 22-year-old from Oklahoma, took time off from college to join AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps. She spent fourth months working on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in 2006, and she returned to the Gulf Coast this summer to work at a community service camp for teenagers.
"I definitely think Hurricane Katrina [was] a catalyst because people saw how much was not done after the storm," she said.
McLaughlin, who aspires to work in the non-profit sector after she finishes her degree, began volunteering as a child. She agreed that members of the post-9/11 generation are looking for ways to serve other than through the military.
"We don't need to feel like we need to be holding a gun to serve our country. We can be holding a shovel, too," McLaughlin said.
When it comes to the expansion of government-funded national service programs, however, some concerns remain. A 2006 survey of 15-to-25 year olds conducted by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE, found that 47 percent believed that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient -- an increase from 29 percent in 2002.
Many Americans soured on the idea of public service in the years following the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, Asch said. Some people adopted the attitude that large-scale efforts such as the war on poverty were bound to fail. The popularity of public service as a career choice for America's brightest and most ambitious also declined.
"We set such impossibly high standards in the 1960s that when we failed to reach those goals, many people became disillusioned about the process entirely," said Asch.
In the world of politics, public service is gaining traction in the field of 2008 presidential candidates. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., one such presidential hopeful, has proposed a Cabinet-level seat for the Corporation for National and Community Service. He also would mandate school-based service as a requirement for high school graduation, double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, and create a Rapid Response Reserve Corps to help local and federal governments respond to disasters, among other service-oriented efforts.
And in March, presidential contender Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., along with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., introduced a bill that would provide funding for the U.S. Public Service Academy. Fellow Democratic hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., was one of ten co-sponsors.
-- By Annie Shuppy, Generation Next