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Singer Usher, Community Service Advocates Testify Before Education and Labor Committee

On the heels of President Barack Obama’s first address to both houses of Congress, during which he called every American to commit to at least one year of higher education or career training, the House Committee on Education and Labor dedicated its first hearing of the new session to revamping community and national service legislation.

The Obama administration aims to link prospective college students with national and community service opportunities to help finance their postsecondary educations.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of volunteers across the country grew by more than a million, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Despite this growing trend, it has been over 15 years since Congress last reauthorized the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the CNCS and formally launched AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that engage Americans in service in the areas of education, public safety, health care and the environment.

In 2008, the committee laid the groundwork for reauthorizing the service programs by passing the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act. During Wednesday’s hearing, committee chair George Miller announced plans to move legislation through Congress soon.

“Last night, I was gratified to hear [President Obama] make national service a key part of his bold agenda,” said Miller, D-Calif. “To help get more students to college, he proposed making college more affordable for Americans who volunteer. He called for Congress to take action to launch a new era of American service. I look forward to working with this committee to deliver him this legislation.”

Testifying at the hearing, Grammy Award-winning singer Usher Raymond IV asked the committee to provide the resources for schools to offer service-learning programs where young people could “put their idealism into action.”

Last year, Raymond served as the youth chair for the Service Nation Summit, an event that brought together hundreds of people to discuss how national service could improve society.

“We need to change the perception of service within our underserved communities,” said Raymond, founder of the New Look Foundation, an organization that mentors disadvantaged youth.

“Far too many of our young people are living in places where life is hard, and the notion of service is still that of a sentence handed down by a judge. We can make it cool to serve by supporting initiatives that think outside the box [such as service organizations] City Year and Hands On,” Raymond added.

Not only can service positively impact higher education, but renewing the nation’s commitment to service can mobilize Americans to address the critical issues facing the nation such as the economic crisis, said Richard Stengel, managing editor of TIME magazine, while testifying during the hearing.

“Service is in our DNA as a nation and as a people. We have seen confidence in our institutions at all-time lows, but volunteerism and civic participation at modern highs,” said Stengel. “Young people feel that the public sphere may be broken but that they can personally make a difference through community service.”

Linking education to volunteerism is not a new concept, Stengel said, noting that national service programs could be dated back to the nation’s founding.

The Peace Corps, a well-known service agency, can traces its roots to 1960, when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country supporting peace by living and working in developing countries. Kennedy’s mandate evolved into a federally funded organization.

The Peace Corps has established partnerships with colleges and universities across the United States that offer academic credit and financial incentives to volunteers during or after Peace Corps service.

Stephanie Lloyd, a 24-year-old City Year volunteer, has served the greater Washington, D.C., community for two years as a tutor, mentor and role model. City Year is a member of the AmeriCorps national service network. Following 1,700 hours of community service, Lloyd will receive an education award worth more than $4,000.

“A lot of colleges are beginning to match this award,” said Lloyd, who is planning to enroll in graduate school at the end of her service term.

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