Expanding National Service on the College Campus

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Scott Cowen

When I get invited to speak at conferences and events, people typically want to hear about the rebirth of Tulane, the story of how Tulane came back stronger and better after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. How did we manage to increase retention and graduation rates, raise student selectivity and invigorate Tulane's national reputation only a few years after the storm? While a number of decisions and people contributed to these successes, I never fail to highlight the single most important factor: our profound commitment to public service and civic engagement.

What began out of necessity -- I made it very clear in the months after Katrina that only those who were ready to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans should return to campus -- has become a critical component of our educational mission. By encouraging our students to bring knowledge learned in the classroom to the community and creatively address pressing social problems, we are instilling in them the ultimate value of higher education -- preparing the next generation of compassionate, engaged citizens and leaders who will actively shape a better world.

Tulane President Scott Cohen and Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Wendy Spencer were speakers at the Tulane National Service Fair where the Tulane AmeriCorps Fellows Program was announced.From becoming the first and only major research university in the country to integrate a public service graduation requirement into its undergraduate curriculum to running one of the largest campus-based AmeriCorps VISTA programs, we have fully embraced the power of service.

Yesterday we announced a new two-year pilot program, the Tulane AmeriCorps Fellows Program, to increase the number of year-long full-time service positions in partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute. The Franklin Project aims to create a national service system that offers at least one million civilian service opportunities for young adults every year.

The program will enable Fellowship participants, including recent Tulane graduates, to commit to a full year of service in high-needs New Orleans neighborhoods. Fellowship participants will live on campus while completing their service year at a local nonprofit. Building on Tulane's deep, long-lasting collaboration with CNCS -- which to date has resulted in 112 AmeriCorps VISTA members serving the New Orleans community and a federal investment of $2.4 million -- the Tulane AmeriCorps Fellows Program represents a significant expansion of our service offerings and a very natural extension of our civic mission.

Over the past eight years, our students, staff and faculty have repeatedly demonstrated why service matters and how civic engagement complements an academically rigorous environment. Changing the campus culture towards a service-minded community of learners and doers has changed their thinking about their place in the world. Our graduates understand that they have the skills to address social problems, and that they are expected to serve their communities.

Civilian national service as a common expectation for all Americans is the vision of the Franklin Project. This will only be possible if others, especially colleges and universities, step up and contribute to the vastly important work of programs like AmeriCorps. I recently had the chance to ask Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, what the higher education sector should be doing to advance national service. Her response made me proud: "Take the Tulane University model all over the country."

While I'm not suggesting that we have all the answers, I can say without hesitation that on the Tulane campus, the Franklin Project's vision is now becoming a reality. Everyone is expected to give back to their communities and we are constantly increasing our capacity to meet our students' demand for meaningful service opportunities. Piloting the Tulane AmeriCorps Fellows Program represents an exciting milestone, and I hope that it will serve as an inspiration for other institutions of higher education.

Scott Cowen is the President of Tulane University. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post Aspen Institute Impact Blog on Feb. 26, 2014.

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