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Volunteer Service Capacity Bill May Benefit MSIs

The Kennedy Serve America Act would create a variety of programs, including an Education Corps to help low-income youth improve educational achievement.

An ambitious national service bill signed into law by President Barack Obama may bring major benefits to minority-serving institutions as well as current — and future — low-income college students.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act would more than triple the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000 and create, among other initiatives, an Education Corps to help low-income youth stay in school and increase achievement. The bill also will create Youth Engagement Zones, or service learning programs, to help high school students and out-of-school youth address issues facing low-income communities, such as homelessness, blight, and a lack of opportunity.

“During difficult times such as those we are facing today, we need to enable more people to answer the call to serve,” says Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, a senior member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in supporting the measure. “The spirit of service runs strong in America.”

The bill also will reinforce the heightened volunteerism common on many college campuses, says Angela Peoples, legislative director of the United States Student Association.

“Students are looking forward to expansion of these programs because they are already giving back to their communities,” she tells Diverse.

Both the House of Representatives and Senate approved the measure by solid margins before Obama signed the bill on April 21. The law is named for Senator Kennedy, a liberal lion of the Senate for more than 40 years.

The legislation also is written to provide increased college assistance to those who participate in service programs. New AmeriCorps participants would reap additional educational benefits. For example, they will be eligible for educational aid of $5,350 next year, the same amount as the maximum federal Pell Grant. The legislation also would index the aid so that it would increase at the same levels as Pell in the future.

This provision is important, says Peoples, so that low-income students can consider service as a viable option.

“More students would like to participate in this program,” she tells Diverse. “This legislation may help them do that.”

Other provisions in the new bill would:

n       Create a “Summer of Service” to introduce middle and high school youth to the concept of national and community service, with a maximum award of $500 for participants to put toward college.

n       Create an Alumni Service Corps that would bring together past AmeriCorps participants to work during national emergencies and natural disasters.

n       Double volunteer service opportunities for the disabled.

n       Establish a new national office to promote community service by Native Americans and greater understanding of tribal needs.

n       Create a Clean Energy Corps that can work on energy-saving projects and environmentally friendly “green” programs.

n       Encourage more adults to serve as mentors for foster youth.


The law also would authorize service learning programs at colleges and universities, with special consideration given to historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving colleges.


Sponsors of the bill, primarily Democrats, say the legislation is timely since more of America’s youth are volunteering. In 2008, more than a quarter of Americans over the age of 16 were engaged in some sort of volunteer service, says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. Studies show that youth who engage in service and volunteerism are more likely to pursue college and commit to service as adults.


This legislation will answer President Obama’s call to begin a new era of national service that will help communities across the country emerge from this crisis stronger,” Miller says.

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