A week ago today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s historic call from the steps of the Michigan Union for students to engage in international service. Then-Senator Kennedy (who was running for president) spoke in the wee hours of Oct. 14, 1960 — 2 a.m. to be exact — in a light rain before more than 5,000 students.
Appropriately, our university has been celebrating this speech for the past few weeks. It culminated in a great speaker series on the steps of the Union at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14. Individuals spoke about University students’ role in the creation of the Peace Corps and discussed how far the organization has come since that fateful day 50 years ago.
I was inspired. But after inspiration comes meditation. I got to thinking, what exactly were Kennedy’s words? So I looked it up.
Kennedy said, “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
That was a call for a Peace Corps? That was this “historic” moment in American history? Those two sentences sent 200,000 Americans abroad — including more than 2,300 University alum — to work peacefully in developing nations?
And the simple answer is no.
My favorite speaker of the night was Dr. Alan Guskin. As graduate students at Michigan in 1960, Al and his wife Judy took that simple call for international service and gathered petitions, organized conventions and encouraged Kennedy to form the Peace Corps.
As we all know, it worked. The lesson I learned is that students have an incredible capacity to create. We are young and idealistic. The world needs our energy and our idealism to address the grim realities of our society.
The 1960s were notorious for students’ role in the civil rights and anti-war movements. But today, more and more adults view students as apathetic. We need to work together to change that perception.
On this campus, there are hundreds of active student organizations in all different shapes and sizes doing great things. Thousands of students take full advantage of these opportunities to participate in cultural, educational or activist organizations. These people ensure that year after year and generation after generation, a huge variety of campus organizations remains vibrant and active.
But countless students choose not to immerse themselves in the subculture of student organizations. Many do not participate at all. Others join simply to pad their resumes, never putting in the necessary energy to create something great.
And these students don’t know what they’re missing. I have found that the volunteer and activist work I have done has been incredibly enriching and rewarding.
I recognize that everyone on campus needs to balance friends and family with reading and tests. I recognize that many students need to devote time and energy to holding down work-study jobs simply to attend the University. I even recognize that the countless student groups on campus can be overwhelming.
But most people are only in college once. After college we must focus on jobs and families. This time, right now, is our one chance to join the ranks of the Guskins and many other student activists who helped shape the world we live in today.
We need a shift in student mentality. Instead of writing off activism due to time constraints, we must make time to devote to others instead of ourselves. President Barack Obama has called on our country — and specifically the younger generation — to serve a greater purpose than oneself. We should all heed this call.
The world has changed since the student activism of the ’60s. Today’s students have less time and more to think about. Finding the right balance between necessary academic pursuits and volunteer student activism is a challenge. So we need to adjust our definition of student activists. Low-time commitment opportunities must become more popular. With more than 26,000 undergrads and 15,000 graduate students, the pool of students at the University waiting to be activists is huge.
Students: Start small. Take time to find one student organization devoted to helping the community (local, national or global) through volunteer work or activism and find out how to become involved. Ask friends what they do if you need ideas. Don’t be overwhelmed — if an hour is all you have time for, start with that.
Leaders: Be imaginative. Let’s make sure we have programs that provide opportunities for all shapes and sizes of student involvement.
The movement for the Peace Corps started with students on this campus. Only you know what could be next. Let’s create it together.
Yonah Lieberman an LSA sophomore.