American Commencement: Can the Class of 2011 Be the Freedom Riders of Tomorrow?

05/16/2011 01:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

The beauty of America is that it's an unfinished work. Every generation has a duty to continue the work of its predecessors and make the world a better place. And as the Class of 2011 awaits graduation we can be confident their commencement speaker will challenge them to "go forth into the world, and be an agent for change." Over 50 years ago, a generation of students heard a similar charge. Those men and women would go on to be called the Freedom Riders. On this, the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, it is time to reflect on how America can better prepare our new graduates to serve their communities and the world.

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama declared that the goal of every American should be to continue the, "unfinished business of perfecting our union." Challenging unjust laws and defending just ones are a cause only few have chosen to accept. For some the decision to take up a cause is personal. Americans tend to invest time and money in efforts that have affected them directly. For others, the mere appearance of injustice or inequality halfway around the world can propel them into social action.

The decision to be an agent of change is for many financial as well. In the recent Pew Research study entitled, "Is College Worth It?" 24 percent responded that student loans had an impact on career choices. One of the many obstacles that inhibit Americans from joining Teach For America or the Peace Corps is the urgency to contribute financially to their family. The dilemma facing America during this economic crisis is how to better prepare our graduates to be courageous and impassioned change agents.

Every movement from the Civil Rights Movement to Arab Spring has taught us that social activism and public service begins with our students. And while a University of Iowa study reveals that students are just as involved in activism today as they were during the Freedom Rides the methods of their activism have evolved. Though social media has created a detachment from those we seek to serve, it has had a tremendous affect on the speed and impact of student activists leading many to wonder how much more successful the Freedom Riders would have been with Facebook.

Producing agents of change can have tremendous impact on society as a whole. A University of Iowa study revealed growth in artistic interests and leadership abilities, aspirations for advanced degrees, and increased chances of voting in a presidential election amongst students who were involved in social activism. As we pause to recognize the Freedom Riders and the tremendous contribution they made to perfecting America, let us also reflect on what we can do to prepare our children to be 21st century Freedom Riders.

Creating an enabling environment strong enough to inspire more of our graduates into action will not be easy, but it is necessary. The financial crisis is forcing schools like Howard University in Washington D.C. to reduce subjects they offer as majors. America can inspire tomorrow's students to support efforts they are more passionate about by diversifying courses and areas of study. The same Pew Research study revealed that the percentage of Americans taking out loans to pay for college has risen to from 52 percent in 1996 to 60 percent in 2008. The amount of the average graduate owes also increased from $17,000 in 1996 to $23,000 in 2008. America can reduce the financial obligation college graduates incur through increased funding in higher education and financial aid, while regulating for-profit universities that prey on unsuspecting students. America can give our graduates the courage they need to be change agents through exposure to those unsung heroes like the Freedom Riders. And as we challenge the Class of 2011 to take up their own cause, the history of the Freedom Riders is helpful because they only prove Margaret Meade's assertion that "a small group of committed people [is the only thing that has ever] changed the world."

The argument that America shouldn't pay special attention to promoting social activism and public service amongst our students, believing service is a sacrifice and not a right, does have merit. For in fact the Freedom Riders did not have enabling environment to serve. And indeed my decision to join the Peace Corps was done at a great sacrifice to the income I could have earned and contributed to my family. But is it not disingenuous to challenge the Class of 2011 to contribute to the world as agents of change without doing everything in our power to assure they are successful?

In this year's commencement address to Spelman College in Atlanta, First Lady Michelle Obama challenged the all-woman's college to accept that they have inherited something from those who came before them, but also that "inheritance doesn't come with entitlement, it comes with an obligation." In the summer of 1961, 436 courageous Americans made the conscious decision to accept the obligation of their inheritance and sacrificed life and limb to do so. Let us look forward to the day when more of our new graduates can take up a cause and become a part of something larger than themselves. There is tremendous work to be done to reform the American education system or promote equal rights for the women I encounter during my travels throughout the developing world. My motivation for traveling to South Africa with the Peace Corps was a fierce urgency to contribute to something greater than myself. It's important that we nurture that need for purpose in the next generation. Whether it is the campaign to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980's or efforts to register voters during the 2008 Presidential election, American students have shown tremendous potential to organize for change. Hopefully we can continue to nurture our children's interests as they continue to seek to do the work of perfecting our union.