Distinguished guests, members of the faculty and administration, parents of HWS students, future HWS students—let me begin by saying what a privilege it is to deliver these remarks and join you as the keynote speaker for Awareness Day. I am honored to be part of this event because Tabor Academy is a unique place where a deep commitment to academic excellence is coupled with an enduring belief in the importance of community service.
The fact that you have taken an entire day out of your academic calendar to focus on service would make any Director of the Peace Corps and college president feel at home. Tabor Academy and those of you who make up the student body are carrying on a great tradition of service, one that unites the dream of a better world with the will to make it happen, here at home and around the world.
I am particularly pleased to be here today because Tabor has a long history of students attending HWS. In my now four years as President I have welcomed 14 Tabor graduates to our campus. They're impressive students, well prepared and are making a difference at HWS. Two distinguished members of your faculty, Tim Walsh of the history department and Paul White of the math department and your business manager are both Hobart grads. Can't you tell?
An invitation to serve as keynote speaker today when the heart of the program is the important small group presentations that follow reminds me of the sage advice given by an Irish priest. Keynote speakers, he said, should think of themselves as the corpse at an old fashioned Irish wake-they need you to have the party, but no one expects you to say very much.
I trust you will not argue with that advice-so my message today is a simple one. My message is about service and why it should be part of our everyday lives. Let me explain why.
Sargent Shriver, the man whom President Kennedy chose to be the first director of the Peace Corps, made this observation in 1962:
"It is a complex world we live in today. While one man orbits the earth in a space capsule, another man squats for hours beside an Asian rice paddy trying to catch a fish only as big as your thumb. While some men manufacture computers, others plow with sticks."
What my predecessor said then still holds true. Today we marvel at the advances in science and technology in our 24/7 news world with 100 cable stations and instant messaging access—we still must remind ourselves that in many countries men and women are still trying to catch fish as long as your thumb or plow with sticks.
We should welcome these technological advancements for they will surely contribute to progress for the human race. At the same time, we should not delude ourselves-we face many of our challenges right here at home that technology will not easily solve. Crime, poverty, racial discord, and lack of opportunity for our society's most vulnerable are problems that continue to plague our society. Internationally, we are at a fragile time of a stand off before a possible war.
But if technology can't solve all our problems, where can we turn? I believe part of the answer lies in the human spirit. In the great struggle for progress and human dignity, I suggest to you today that we must rely on our own sense of personal commitment and our belief in the power of service. Our government, our local institutions-our churches, synagogues, mosques all have an important role to play in this struggle. But we as individuals must also meet our obligations and responsibilities that come with living in a free and prosperous society.
As the director of the Peace Corps I had the good fortune to see first hand the extraordinary impact that dedicated people can have when they serve others. Right now there are 7,000 Americans serving as PCVs in more than 80 countries—Africa, Asia, Latin and South America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Peace Corps Volunteers are serving in countries that didn't exist in 1961 when JFK started it—or nations that you didn't get a visa to 30 years ago. They work in education, health, environment, and business.
And while our volunteers reflect the great diversity of our country-they share in common at least one trait and that is a deep commitment to help change and improve the human condition. They go abroad not to impose our values and the American way of life on others, but instead to encourage progress at the grassroots level, to help people help themselves and reach the full potential of their talents. Yet PCVs will tell you that they learn as much as they teach-they learn a new set of skills that will enhance their careers when they come home, they learn about other people-and perhaps more than anything else they learn about themselves.
Most of the volunteers serving today are men and women in their 20s—who are living an extraordinary experience and making a difference in the lives of countless people. And many of them are just like all of you here at Tabor. They are defying the perception still popular in some quarters about what is known as Gen X, Gen Y, or the MTV generation. You know what some of the cultural observers and critics contend: that young people are slackers who spend too much of their time watching TV, that you are self-absorbed and have no ambitions or discipline; that you are not up to solving the challenges that confront our country's future.
Well, the truth is always more complicated than conventional wisdom. Indeed, caricatures of stereotypes are often popular not for their truth but for their lack of it. Moreover, your generation is not the first to be subject to such a gloomy assessment. The spirit of volunteerism remains a strong force among American people:
- Peace corp applications are up
- Americorps applications are up
- UCLA survey of college freshmen shows volunteers are up
So much for the apathy of the MTV generation. I believe that young people care a great deal about what is happening in communities across the country and across the world.
They know that understanding of the world beyond our borders is an imperative for any 21st century citizen. A friend of mine sent me an analysis of the world that is a helpful reminder for Americans.
But the Peace Corps is just one of many means through which people can meet their obligations through service. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Corp. for National and Community Service, which oversees Americorps (the domestic Peace Corps.), Vista, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve, I've seen an impressive range of activity and level of commitment to community service in our nation.
Let me tell you about one.
Chris Smith graduated from Tabor Academy and entered City Year Volunteer Corps before heading off to Hobart College. While a student at Hobart he created one of the most successful service projects on our campus, called Geneva Heroes. Chris's idea was a simple but a powerful one. HWS students would work with Geneva Middle School students jointly on community service projects. The brilliance of Chris's idea combines the benefit of mentorship to at-risk middle school students with community service. He also boosted participation for our Day of Service in significant ways.
Since leaving Hobart, Chris has made service an important part of his life, working with the program Squash Busters—to teach youth the game of squash and academic tutoring. His professional career now is in advancing Citizen Schools in Boston. He has found ways to blend his personal interests like squash while making a real difference in the lives of real people. And both Tabor and Hobart can take great pride in his life of meaning and accomplishment.
The challenge then for all of us, is to make service an everyday part of our civic life. This challenge applies to all generations. The era of big government is over-but the era of big citizenship is not.
This is particularly important given the privileges we all have as American citizens and, if I may say respectfully, the privileges you have as a Tabor Academy student.
You are fortunate to attend one of the finest independent secondary schools in the nation. You will go on to attend a college or university—a privilege accorded to only 1 percent of the world's population. And while we are living in a politically uncertain time, I continue to believe that this is one of the best times ever to be alive in the history of time, with advances in medicine and public health, and technology.
You live in a country with freedom of speech and worship, free from arrest, torture, or harassment, unlike 3 billion people in the world.
You live with food, clothes, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, making you richer than 75 percent of the world.
Chances are you have money in the bank, in your wallet or spare change somewhere, making you among the top 8 percent of the world's wealthy.
So I would argue your obligation is great. To those who have given a great deal—much is expected. And service in the 21st century is part of the deal.
Being a good citizen means many things. It means we pay our taxes. It means hopefully we vote and obey the law. We even turn our clocks back at daylight savings time.
The decisions being made today by politicians in Washington or Boston will affect you and your generation more than anyone. Realistically the law makers making important decisions about your future—their lives are half over. Yours aren't. So it's more consequential to you to get involved.
And if you buy into the cynical view that government doesn't make a difference in your life—I'd ask you to review your day:
- You woke up-and hopefully brushed your teeth with water that is cleaned and studied by government.
- Turned on a light using electricity from electrical plants regulated.
- Crossed a street paved and maintained by government.
- Ate breakfast foods inspected to insure their safety.
You have insured in your lifetime:
- Equal access in public accommodations
Improvements in air and water quality
- Consumer protection
- Access to post secondary education
- Later in your life - access to healthcare
All of this done by the government.
So avoid the trap that government isn't relevant in your life. Read about issues of the day. Talk to your faculty members.
Being a good citizen also means giving something back by doing something to improve the lives of our fellow citizens without demanding anything in return.
Whether you become a big sister or a big brother—you can serve.
Whether you make sandwiches for a shelter for the homeless—you can serve.
Or if a few years from now you decide to become a Peace Corps Volunteer—you can serve. I highly recommend that last one.
So as you begin this Awarness Day, I urge you to take part in the extraordinary tradition of service that is so much a part of our country's past and one that is so important to our future.
Fifty years from now, when you are sitting on your front porch sipping on a cool lemonade and you reflect on what I trust will be a life well lived, what will matter the most? The wealth you have acquired? I doubt it. You social status? Probably not. The car in the garage? Certainly not.
No, I am confident that what will matter the most will be if you can say to yourself with truth, conviction, and humility that you contributed to our society, that you gave something back, that you made a difference by serving others.
Martin Luther King taught us many things about who we are as a people and what our country must do to ensure that we all can enjoy that promise of the American dream. He said, "Believe in something so fervently that you will stand up for it till the end of your days."
He also taught us something about how we as individuals can not only improve the lives of other people-but also how serving others can change a nation.
Dr. King said, "Everyone can be great because everyone can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subjects and verbs agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know about Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul regenerated by love."
I trust your time here at Tabor has fostered this spirit in all of you. And I hope that this important Awareness Day will broaden your view of service and blend it into your lives now—when you're in college and for the rest of your life.
You can help lead your communities, your country, and the world to a better future. We need you. Thank you.
Mark Gearan at Tabor Academy, Keynote address for the Academy's "Awareness Day," an event themed around service
Feb. 27, 2003