George Lucas Educational Foundation
Service Learning

From Selfies to Service: The Power of Civic Engagement

July 9, 2014

Within the past academic year, three brilliant college students committed suicide because of intense academic and extracurricular pressures. At the University of Pennsylvania, track star Madison Holleran leapt to her death and Elvis Hatcher hung himself. Subsequently, NYU student and artist Rowen Altenburger was discovered at the Bryant Park Hotel after taking her own life.

All across America, young people are in crisis as they parade themselves on social media and chase superficial definitions of success. Simultaneously, Millennials' civic engagement is lower than that of previous generations, according to Jean Twenge's study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, because they "are focusing more on money, image, and fame." While they are more likely to volunteer during high school, it is to fulfill a graduation requirement rather than because of an intrinsic sense of civic duty. In order to save our youth, we should redefine achievement to include service, because it leads to connection, perspective and -- most importantly -- well-being.

Stepping Off the Treadmill

We can start by lessening the importance we place on measurable success. I recently watched Vicki Abeles' documentary Race to Nowhere, in which the most heartbreaking moment occurred when 13-year-old Devon Marvin killed herself because of a low grade on a math test. While the subsequent discussion centered on the need to reevaluate the impossible expectations forced upon children, I wondered how realistic this is in a culture where winning is everything. Clearly, there is something terribly wrong when kids quantify their precious lives with an exam grade. Sadly, the phrase "race to nowhere" is also an apt metaphor for Madison, Elvis, and Rowen.

Furthermore, let's accept and even honor failure as a normal part of growing up. According to The New York Post, Madison's dad, Jim Holleran, said that his daughter "had lost confidence" when suddenly surrounded by competition. I always thought that a loss of confidence was expected when one started college, but in a society that worships at the cult of self-esteem, it is taboo. Anna Deavere Smith, the superb actress, playwright, and professor, has said, "Confidence is overrated. Give doubt a try." Presumably, that's when you step out of your comfort zone, struggle, and ultimately grow. However, this usually necessitates lagging in the race, an unpopular notion these days. With all our talk of grit, you'd think we'd also embrace the obstacles that beget grit.

Joe O'Shea, in his book Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, advocates for stepping off the "treadmill" from high school to college by taking a year off to volunteer in a developing country. According to O'Shea, students grow when they engage with ideas that are different than their own. They also develop "passion, purpose, and perspective."

Sounds like the perfect prescription for all youth -- from those whose only purpose seems to be snapping selfies to those with too much purpose -- who perhaps should be pointed in a more meaningful direction, thereby gaining a healthier perspective on life.

The Win-Win of Civic Engagement

In previous generations, there was more of an expectation, as well as more opportunities, to serve the nation. Interestingly, according to a survey of returned Peace Corps Volunteers, 94 percent said they would sign on again, and 93 percent said they would recommend the experience to others. Anne Stadler, who spent two years in Bolivia after graduating college, said that it was the best thing she'd ever done. Additionally, 75 percent of respondents said that the Peace Corps helped their careers -- a stellar example of doing well by doing good.

Furthermore, Tufts University's Peter Levine studied the relationship between civic engagement and "psychosocial well-being" among students and concluded that people are happier if (among other things) "their own daily activities are useful to and valued by society," and they have a "sense of belonging to, and comfort and support from, a community." Therefore, he believes that civic engagement programs can boost happiness.

I agree. In 2005, I left the entertainment industry to join The New York City Teaching Fellows, and spent four years teaching English in an impoverished high school. Though my job lacked status and was a big step down in salary, those moments when I engendered a love of reading or watched someone open a college acceptance letter -- the first in their family to attend university -- were blissful.

Optimistically, there is some movement toward making service a valued rite of passage. City Year is dedicated to transforming the graduation pipeline by placing recent college graduates in at-risk schools. Furthermore, The Franklin Project is committed to establishing a service system that engages at least one million young adults annually in a demanding year of full-time national service, as evidenced by last month's Gettysburg Summit. Additionally, all Ivy League universities now endorse gap years for interested students, according to Joe O'Shea. Also, Tufts' newly launched 1+4 Program will make it financially possible for interested students to do a year of full-time domestic or international public service before they begin their four years on campus.

Let’s encourage Millennials to engage in service, thereby contributing to society and to their own well-being in immeasurable ways.

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  • Service Learning
  • Community Partnerships
  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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