College students can play a powerful role in public service for the education of youth, said panelists at a Public Service Forum held in the Science Center on Wednesday.
About 60 students, volunteers and community members attended the panel titled: "The Power of College Volunteers to Turn the Tide for Children and Youth."
The forum is part of a monthly series of panel discussions on public service to be presented by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Standing Committee on Public Service.
Committee Chair Theda R. Skocpol, who is also professor of government and of sociology, said she hoped that those in attendance would "get new ideas, see the type of difference a lasting commitment can make and learn about the careers that are possible in public service."
The event began with a lecture by Harris Wofford, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and current CEO of the Corporation for National Service.
"I don't want national service to be something out there on the periphery," he said, emphasizing the importance of student involvement in public service.
Wofford added that there should be a sense of urgency to promote a strong public service initiative to help the "fifteen million [American] youth currently headed for personal and national disaster."
The panelists were former Harvard president Derek C. Bok and Jordan Meranus, the Boston director of Jumpstart, a service organization for college students. The discussion was moderated by Skocpol.
All three speakers discussed expanding, both in numbers and in depth of commitment, the overall involvement of college students in public service.
Meranus used Jumpstart as an example of how students' public service experiences can be deepened.
The program, which pairs college students with first-and second-graders in several cities, provides extensive training and support for its members. Jumpstart also expects a two-year commitment, including one full summer of work.
"It is not a drop in, drop out program," Meranus said.
Bok, who is currently 300th anniversary university professor, emphasized the importance of the "preparation of students as good and active citizens," especially at a time when student involvement in politics is waning.
Bok spoke about the importance of student involvement in both hands-on public service and the political aspects of social problems.
"If you really care about the people...and problems, you've got to devote part of your activity to the political aspect," he said.
Panelists also advocated a deep relationship between education and public service.
"Going out and teaching a subject, or learning about the social sciences by doing social service projects...is often an effective form of pedagogy," Wofford said.
Bok also advocated more college courses with "clearer ties to community service, to help students understand how these conditions exist."
At the same time, Bok admitted that there are limitations to what college students can accomplish by themselves.
"They can't take the place of indigenous, grass-roots efforts," he said. "If you don't get [local] community members, parents, and employers to help...you'll have a hard time improving schools."