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Ask What You Can Do

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
June 30, 2015

Schuh juneIn addition to being a retired federal executive and a current public administration professor, I am the mother of three adult children, each of whom, without parental encouragement, chose public service at some point in their career. It has been almost 10 years since the last one completed her service, and, in looking back, I am amazed at the difference public service made in their lives. Their different paths can be instructive to recent graduates who are unsure about their future career plans. More importantly, their experiences suggest that the notion of mandatory national service, frequently proposed in guest columns such as the one written last year by Jennie Shulkin, has individual as well societal value.

My oldest son spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching English at a university in Kazakhstan. In addition to language skills, this work involved the use of creativity in obtaining materials and developing course work in a different culture. When my son completed his volunteer tour, the University of Chicago accepted him into an International MBA program based, in part, on his Peace Corps experience. After graduation, a computer consulting organization hired him noting that his Peace Corps experience was a factor in the selection process. He now has his own business and uses the ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills he developed in the Peace Corps to grow that business.

My second son spent five years in the Marine Corps. During that time he developed computer security skills. After completion of one tour of duty, my son left the Marine Corps and worked for several federal government security agencies and three private sector organizations performing computer security work. He now has his dream job working for Google on computer security issues.

My daughter spent her two service years in AmeriCorps working as a community organizer in low income areas in Baltimore. During that period, she developed management skills, self confidence and a strong interest in urban planning. The University of Michigan’s urban planning program considered her public service experience an important factor in accepting her into their top rated urban planning program and providing her with considerable scholarship support. Upon completion of her master’s degree, an urban planning consulting firm hired her and after a few years in consulting she moved to a government urban planning agency.

In reviewing the above situations, common factors surface. All three individuals were unsure about long term career interests at the time each volunteered. Public service gave each an opportunity to experience work life and the time to think about what work each enjoyed in a low risk environment. All three gained both skills and employment credibility as part of their volunteer experiences. The skills and employment credibility then opened up new doors to additional education and employment opportunities. Finally, while the public service experience gave them a better understanding of government, the experience did not limit their futures to government work only.

These common factors highlight the fact that volunteer public service is an individual opportunity, particularly for those who have not identified specific career goals. Young people, even those without an undergraduate degree, can develop skills, create an attractive employment record and explore different work types in a low risk environment through public service volunteerism. More importantly, the benefits of this activity can affect the volunteer positively for many years to come.

From a societal perspective as retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter have observed, the current lack of civics education has resulted in citizens who do not understand the functions and operations of government. The justices noted that this lack of understanding has resulted in a citizenry that has lost faith in the democratic process and is skeptical about the capacity of the federal government to solve problems. Alternatively, as Eric Navarro notes, national public service can provide citizens with a shared experience, the opportunity for all to contribute to the work of the nation, a better understanding of government operations and a new sense of community.

As my late husband often observed, his mandatory military experience exposed him to people from all over the country, people with different accents, ethnicity, politics and religion. More importantly, in the military, he had to work daily with people who had many different viewpoints. It is this exposure to difference that our current society needs and lacks because of tailored media and homogeneous communities. National service can address this absence of a broader perspective.

There are various approaches to national service. Navarro proposes a voluntary system that ties the service to necessary federal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. Others, including Lawrence White, suggest a mandatory national service system. The type of system is not important; what is important is the enormous benefit to the individual and to society. More than 50 years ago, John Kennedy understood this when he said “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” In doing for the country, the volunteer public servant does well for him or herself.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an associate professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program.

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