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Peace Corps Cofounder Harris Wofford Promotes Public Service at Michigan Law

By Lori Atherton
April 2, 2014

During an early morning speech on the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy challenged University of Michigan students to serve their country. Students responded by signing a petition stating they would volunteer, prompting Kennedy to formally propose the Peace Corps a few weeks later. More than 50 years after Kennedy's historic speech, another talk on the value of public service was given at U-M—this time by Peace Corps cofounder Harris Wofford.

Harris WoffordWofford visited Michigan Law March 31 as part of the International Law Workshop series. His topic, "A Year of Service (Abroad) as a Rite of Passage," focused on re-engaging young people in citizen service in the United States and abroad.

"It's an old and affirmative proposition that higher education in the United States should include at some point in your life learning to be an active citizen," Wofford told the audience. "Public service is an opportunity to bond with people of different backgrounds and to go into areas that aren't as comfortable as you're used to. A year of service should be a common expectation between the ages of 18 and 28."

A former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who served from 1991 to 1995, Wofford was special assistant to President Kennedy and a friend and unofficial adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to cofounding the Peace Corps, he played a key role in passing the legislation that created AmeriCorps, the Learn and Serve America program, and the Corporation for National and Community Service. He currently is a senior adviser to the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project, which supports the creation of national service positions and yearlong service opportunities abroad.

Wofford noted that when considering public service, young people should think of themselves as "entrepreneurs" and choose opportunities where they can be most useful. "I hope what happens isn't that you find the right organization that sends you somewhere," Wofford said, "but that you think through where you can be useful and learn the most that you can. Public service is a way for Americans to learn about the world."


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