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PILLAI: National service program can help unify younger generations

Column: Unboxed

Some people feel disconnected from their community after graduation, which mandatory service can alleviate. – Photo by

As a student leader at Rutgers, I have often mused about what it means to serve a larger community. I enjoy planning events centered around civic engagement, inclusivity and wellness for my fellow students because these opportunities allow us to learn about one another in a casual setting and discuss topics that we care about.

When I am coordinating an event with another leader or mentoring a first-year student, that moment of human connection ignites a spark in me that keeps me going every day. I do not want this spark to extinguish once I leave college.

That sounds a bit dramatic, but I have witnessed college graduates experiencing burnout and seclusion after entering the workforce. Although many graduates find fulfillment by volunteering and participating in employee resource groups, there is seldom a place for them to congregate with their peers and share stories. It is difficult for graduates to find a community or even a larger purpose once they leave the snug bubble of college.

A national service program could alleviate both issues. Individuals between the ages of 17 and 25 could either serve in the military or participate in a service initiative based on their interests or skills. Through this program, participants could learn how to serve humbly and assist those in need without falling prey to the savior complex.

They could teach, build, draw, code, clean, restore and write to design a better world. Working with peers across the country, they could adopt new perspectives and start building bridges rather than trafficking in stereotypes and generalizations.

Students who need a buffer before entering the workforce could join this service program to discover their own strengths and interests. By collaborating with peers on meaningful projects, they could learn how to build a career with purpose or create their own ventures. This program would simulate a gap year, providing a much-needed break before students start working full-time.

The program would also develop an engaged generation that is united under a common goal: helping others. This kind of initiative would generate authentic patriotism — not the flag-waving, firework-popping kind but a real, emotional connection to this country’s avowed dedication to equality and justice.

This July, University President Jonathan Holloway discussed in a New York Times op-ed why he supports compulsory national service. He explains that this program could eliminate the vitriol that now courses through all of our political discourse by bringing Americans together and putting them to work.

In his reasoning, he hearkens back to past presidential administrations, including those of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, who established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program.

While the CCC was supposed to be a vehicle for social mobility and an outlet for youth participation, it often reinforced the social divisions it meant to dismantle. In 1934, the director of the CCC, Robert Fechner, segregated Black and white enrollees even though the program was intended to be integrated.

The CCC did provide jobs, education and resources to all participants, but it, along with many other New Deal programs, impacted people differently based on their race.

The federal government must tackle the CCC’s legacy and consider Generation Z’s input to create a truly inclusive service program. The program should empower young people to work on projects that they feel will make the most impact.

For example, participants who wish that they had safe spaces to talk about sexuality and relationships as teens could work to create a comprehensive, Generation Z-focused sex education program at a local school district.

Critics of universal national service suggest that such an initiative could delay marriage and childbearing, limit freedoms and prevent participants from pursuing other interests. Without a universal service program, all of the outcomes are still equally likely.

Many members of Generation Z are expressing a desire to not have children due to potential climate change implications, and the rising cost of living is already preventing us from following our passions.

Holloway is right. Compulsory national service could help our country reimagine the definition of civic duty and inspire young people to take a stand. If public officials take time to listen to Generation Z, we will prove that we have the energy to work for our government so that our government works for all of us.

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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