Earlier this week, President Obama spoke at Morehouse’s Commencement Ceremony to rows of graduates getting drenched by Atlanta’s most recent, unrelenting rainstorms. Thousands of miles away, I read the speech on the floor of my Russian classroom before setting off for hours of Pre-Service Training and smiled. I was inspired by the President’s focus on service and community.
While the speech was focused on the Morehouse community, I understood it as a call to action for all young people to recognize their responsibilities to their communities, their families, and their country as a generation blessed by the sacrifices made in the generations that have come before.
I was blessed with opportunities growing up. I come from an incredibly supportive family; I studied in a school that encouraged critical thinking, creativity, and exploration. I can admit with humility that I am lucky enough to have never felt need in the way that thousands of Americans feel on a daily basis – whether it is attempting to acquire health care through an inaccessible system or going to school hungry or being denied my rights as a citizen because of what I look like or who I love. There are generations of women before me who could not have dreamed of the opportunities that are now open to me because they demanded change. I am lucky.
I live in a unique period of American history and culture that is often defined by opportunity, but not enough by our responsibility to continuing that legacy of expanding opportunities for others. And that, I think, was the goal of the President’s speech at Morehouse. I have the opportunity to succeed, to choose a career that will secure for me a future free from want or need, but also an opportunity to give back.
And that is what I am doing, that is what struck me so deeply about the President’s words. He described the choice I made in joining the Peace Corps and my opportunity to serve my community and my country, particularly in the following part:
“So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers…
So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is — it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough.”
I have been asked why I chose to serve abroad instead of working to build American communities, and I think that is a valid question. It could be selfishly answered, too – I want to experience things that not many other people get to experience, I want to see parts of the world that have rarely seen an American, I want to represent the best of American ideals to the rest of the world. I want to do something I will be proud of.
But those are in tandem with a larger goal – learning how to build and serve a community that faces unique challenges and an absence of resources will allow me to learn how to better build a community at home. I hope that my Peace Corps experience will improve my ability to communicate, to empower, to engage, and to galvanize community action – all skills that can change the dynamic of an American community. By understanding another part of the world, I hope that they can better understand my part of the world. I hope by answering a call to service, I will becoming a stronger voice to call others to serve.
I don’t know where I will end up working when I finish my service or what exactly it is I will be doing, but I hope it is something that provides for more people to understand and achieve their potential for opportunity.
And I know my choice to serve for 27 months abroad is not for everyone, but it is by no means the only way to give back. It can be as simple as voting – an often overlooked privilege for Americans to actively shape their communities. It can be mentoring someone or participating in your Neighborhood Association or supporting local entrepreneurs. Community investment and service take many forms, and it’s an important way to expand opportunities for others.
Ours is a generation of opportunity, and it’s a legacy that I hope to continue as my service begins.
Image Credit – Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images