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Virginia college presidents discuss 'big idea' of service year at governor's summit

  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe addresses the presidents and other campus leaders who attended the summit.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and co-chair of the Franklin Project, addresses the summit's attendees in the School of Education.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  William & Mary President Taylor Reveley welcome attendees on Monday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  Jon Alger (right), president of James Madison University, participated in a panel discussion along with the presidents of Shenandoah University (left) and John Tyler Community College.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  Anne Holton (right) moderated the presidents panel Monday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  Participants engage in discussion during one of the summit's sessions in the Matoaka Woods Room.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  More than 150 people attended the summit, including William & Mary's vice president for student affairs, Ginger Ambler (left).  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  Cathy Howard (right), vice provost of community engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University, participates in a panel discussion about college/university priorities and the community engagement for Virginia and beyond.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Service Summit:
    Service Summit:  William & Mary President Taylor Reveley (leftt) talks with Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao in a hallway of the School of Education.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Imagine what would happen if every young person in America dedicated a year to national service, tackling social issues from health to education.

That’s what the presidents of Virginia’s colleges and universities were asked to consider as part of the Virginia Governor’s Higher Education Presidents’ Summit on the Service Year. The leaders gathered at William & Mary Oct. 4-5 to discuss the concept of a national year of service and explore ways in which the Commonwealth’s institutions of higher education might help make that “big idea” a reality.

"It’s cultural change, and so it’s not going to be easy and it’s going to require a lot of thought together and action together," said First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe. "But it’s all about aspirational leadership, and that really is why we enter public service, why we are involved in higher ed – it’s about the big idea and being idealistic."

Dororthy McAuliffe and her husband, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, hosted the summit along with William & Mary, James Madison University, Lord Fairfax Community College, Shenandoah University and Virginia Military Institute. Drew Stelljes, assistant vice president for student engagement and leadership at William & Mary, organized the event, which was sponsored by the Virginia Department of Social Services in collaboration with the Governor’s Advisory Board on Service and Volunteerism and the Virginia Service Foundation. Among the approximately 150 attendees were 16 college presidents as well as Dorothy McAuliffe, Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton and John Bridgeland, CEO of civic enterprises and co-chair of the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project.

{{youtube:medium:left|pP7INZ0a1kM, Virginia Governor’s Higher Education Presidents’ Summit on the Service Year}}

Holton moderated a panel with several of the visiting presidents.

“I’m really, really thrilled to be here and looking forward to learning along with you from this great panel, and I know it’s going to be a great day all day long thinking about this important topic together,” she said.

In introducing the panel, Holton talked about the people in her life who had dedicated time to service, including a niece who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.

"Not only was that a transformative experience for her ... but for her whole network back here," said Holton. "Everybody, all of us, followed her whole experience along, family and friends, and we now know something about Cameroon. And when I read about Boko Haram overrunning this area, it’s very real to me and to everyone else in her network."

After the panel, Holton praised the idea of promoting a year of service as a cultural expectation in order to change the conversation about civic responsibility.

“And I think the opportunity to take our great higher ed institutions here in Virginia and make them a voice and a promoter of that concept and an enabler of that concept is very exciting,” she said.

The Franklin Project aims to make a year of full-time, paid national service “a cultural expectation, a common opportunity and a civic rite of passage” for Americans between the ages of 18 and 28, according to the project’s website. The idea for the October summit came about last year when Virginia became an employer of national service – the first state in the country to do so. As such, the Commonwealth recognizes service with organizations such as the Peace Corps as a credential in the hiring process for state jobs.

“That says this is a person with valuable experience to us, somebody with skills that will help us in state government, someone who is passionate and resilient,” said Dorothy McAuliffe.

{{youtube:medium:left|e0gunQn2_ac, Dorothy McAuliffe at the Virginia Governor’s Higher Education Presidents’ Summit on the Service Year}}

The summit began on Sunday evening at Alan B. Miller Hall with a dinner and a call to action by Bridgeland and Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The event continued the next morning at the School of Education with welcome remarks by Dorothy McAuliffe, who talked about how engaging in service had changed the lives of her three children.

“We know what a difference it makes in their lives and their futures, so what we believe personally is that all youth should have the opportunity to have a personal experience that will really help who they are and where they go and what they choose in their career,” she said.

Throughout the day, attendees had the chance to learn about national service efforts already underway at many Virginia colleges and universities as well as nationwide, including the creation of a website database for students to search for opportunities. The leaders also discussed potential benefits as well as challenges to the national year of service concept. For instance, during the panel session moderated by Holton with the presidents from James Madison University, Shenandoah University and John Tyler Community College, Tracy Fitzsimmons noted that taking a full year might not be realistic for students from low-income backgrounds, and encouraged flexibility, maybe offering alternative timelines akin to the National Guard model.

“As we move toward a year of service, if we could find ways to get all of those who want to do it to be able to afford to do it, I think that’s the most important thing we can do,” said Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University.

William & Mary President Taylor Reveley remarked on the Historic Triangle being an apropos location for the discussion on the service year.

“This is a place that has seen such a flowering of service for our country, and a year of national service for young people going forward would be in that grand tradition,” he said.

Reveley praised the rich conversations taking place at the summit, but noted that in order for them to bear fruit, “we need to follow this up,” he said.

Just such a follow-up is planned to take place at James Madison University on Feb. 9, 2016. As the summit drew to a close Monday afternoon, attendees were asked to help develop the agenda for that meeting and define a handful of action items.

Bridgeland outlined five of those items, including a compact to be signed by presidents of Virginia colleges and universities, declaring their support for a national year of service.

“If we do that in a really artful and enthusiastic and intelligent way, which we will, that could really help embed this idea in the culture,” Bridgeland said.

The other ideas included: creating a Virginia higher education service year challenge, in which models for pursuing national service would be submitted as part of a competition for grants; organizing the collection of data on national service already being completed by students and alumni of Virginia colleges and universities; developing a Virginia higher education service year advisory group; and sending presidents and provosts to James Madison University for the February meeting in order to share existing models or propose ideas for new ones.

Bridgeland noted that the National Park System – which has been called “America’s best idea” – came from citizens who believed passionately in the idea and used that passion to garner the support of the government.

“So big ideas emerge from individual citizens and the institutions of civil society, and I’m so excited by the fact that all of you citizens and leaders in higher education came together to talk about concrete ways that we can support a service year,” he said.

U.S. Presidents George Washington and John Adams had a favorite quote, Bridgeland said: “We cannot ensure success, but we can deserve it.”

“After the last 12 hours or so of being together and innovating and all of the creative ideas we heard, I think the Commonwealth of Virginia will deserve it,” he said.