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Seth Ewing: Pondering public service

Seth Ewing
Seth Ewing

Since President Obama's inauguration, a lot of people have been wondering what his plans are for national service, as mentioned in his campaign.

This is a concern especially for the college student who will be bearing the brunt of this work.

Most notable of the president's promises is the $4,000 tax credit intended to help defer the costs of higher education. The plan is that middle and high school students complete 50 hours of public service a year in order to earn this tax credit.

The president also plans to make sure that at least 25 percent of college work-study funds are used to support public service opportunities instead of jobs in dining halls and libraries.

In my opinion there has never been a better time to get to work cleaning up Bush's mess and get educated as well. But the call of public service is not merely limited to students. The entire nation is encouraged to do their part.

To spearhead this plan into action, the Serve America Act must be passed. Its two proponents are senators Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Due to Senator Kennedy's ill health, his niece, Caroline Kennedy, has represented him in his absence.

Basically, this is a plan to bring more funding to nonprofits that benefit our local communities and expand existing groups such as AmeriCorps. The two senators envision a plan where young people give a year of their time to serve full-time -- but any amount of service is welcome.

Although there are critics of President Obama who feel that he missed a great opportunity to address public service in his speech, I do not think this is cause for alarm. Simply ignoring it in one speech is not a guarantee he will renege on his promise.

Regardless, he has already made clear that he wishes for more people to join the military and service organizations, such as the Peace Corps and the AmericaCorps. To me this is very important. I can't remember Bush even once asking people to join the military, which he spread thin and treated like dirt, to say the least.

For those of you reading this, please recall that I served in Iraq with Bush as my commander-in-chief and know from personal experience.

For those of you who don't know, AmeriCorps was founded in 1993 by President Bill Clinton to play a domestic role similar to President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, founded in 1961. The Peace Corps works to promote peace and understanding through service in impoverished countries.

There is a strong interest among young people to help our communities, I asked one Merced College student, Rachel Wheeler, who studies full-time and also works as a preschool teacher assistant for the Turlock school district, what she thought.

This is what she had to say: "I used to go to Modesto Junior College when I first got out of high school, and I volunteered for AmeriCorps to work with kids. I got accepted but three weeks later it got cut, due (to a lack of) funding."

I am ecstatic that a strong emphasis is finally being put on public service. It makes me think of my own public service in the Army.

I am disillusioned about my participation in Iraq, but that does not deter me from my original aspirations to help my fellow citizens. Inevitably, in a guard tower in a meditative trance between hyper-alertness and rigorous introspection, I came to the conclusion that it is unfair for the government to only promote the military and ignore our fine institutions of nonviolent service as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.

The rebuttal for my claim is that people who volunteer for services such as the Peace Corps are wusses who couldn't hack it in the military. This absurd rhetoric dates all the way back to one of Kennedy's first naysayers: Richard M. Nixon.

Contrary to this, Peace Corps volunteers are not wusses. One needs only to look at historical examples of Peace Corps volunteers dying while on duty.

As recently as 2007, three Peace Corps volunteers died while on active duty. One member in the Philippines was murdered, while another died from gunshot wounds while accidentally getting caught in a trap.

The Peace Corps is even more dangerous for women, who have been targeted as rape victims in Guatemala.

I was reading the AmeriCorps pledge, and it grabbed my attention when it stated in the third part: "(F)aced with apathy, I will take action." This seems to be a consistent theme among young people today.

Especially among us who support the Obama presidency and got him elected. Not only will "taking action" improve our communities and the world in general, but it may also help us recover from the economic crisis by getting the cash flowing back into the citizens' pockets who will inevitably spend it.

Members of AmeriCorps (and the Peace Corps) receive a rather modest salary comparable to military wages and federal benefits, including health care; there is also a college bonus of around $4,700.

If you are interested in serving, a good first step is visiting and filling out the service pledge. Celebrity news-comedian Stephen Colbert has signed it, and if it is good enough for him, it is good enough for me.

Specialist Seth L. Ewing is an Army combat veteran of two tours in Iraq. He now studies journalism at Merced College.