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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE : Is Youthful Idealism Dead in the '90s?

October 02, 1994|AMY WU | Amy Wu is a junior at New York University majoring in American History

The road to AmeriCorps, President Bill Clinton's national-service program, begins with an invitation to embark on a journey to help fellow citizens, to better the community, to change the world. I was tempted to apply for a less noble reason--I wanted the money.

Remember the days when idealistic young people got down and dirty because they wanted to change the world? These days, money means more to college students than making a difference. National service is self-service.

My roommate at New York University flipped on a calculator and figured that AmeriCorps wasn't worth her time--$2,100 a year for three years, followed by $2,363 in tuition grants. A young man with cornrow braids bragged he could make $5,000 bagging groceries in one year. A young woman said that the 900 required hours were too many.

The applications that flowed into AmeriCorps at the 11th hour did not mark an outpouring of do-goodism. For applicants, it was the money, an admirable entry on their resume, work experience or a stepping stone to a career.

How important was the money? A college nearby with an AmeriCorps program didn't offer students a living stipend; getting kids to apply was like pulling teeth. At NYU, the money made all the difference.

It's said that today's young people have to be bribed to be genuine. On a recent afternoon, I ventured into the NYU student lounge and chatted with young people about the President's program.

Many were enthusiastic when I told them about the money, but their excitement waned when they heard about the three-year, 900-hour requirement. "Isn't that like joining the army?" one kid asked.

Some frowned when they heard about helping inner-city high school students. "They can't pay me enough to do that," a young woman said bitterly.

When you're 18 or 19 years old, you live in a world without consequences. Commitment is frightening, especially if you're doing it more for the money than making a difference.

I was tempted to apply because it sounded exciting, kind of like a trip to the moon. I asked myself what was in it for me. I was haunted by what a classmate had said after I had chastised him for applying just for the money: "Our whole society is based on money; you have to live with it."

In the end, my hopes, along with the application, went into the dump, and I was left to wonder what national service would really accomplish, and who would benefit. It seems the President's program was made for the wrong generation.

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