03/29/2013 11:47 am ET Updated May 29, 2013

Transformed by History: Gettysburg College's Call to Service


As Gettysburg College joins the nation this year in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, it's clear that not only our location binds us to these historic events. We are also bound by service.

When the Civil War made its way to Pennsylvania, Gettysburg College stood in its midst. With news of an approaching Confederate States Army in June 1863, 48 of the 116 students enrolled in the College at that time abandoned their studies and joined Company A, 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Regiment, offering their service to the Union Army. The Battle of Gettysburg ensued in early July, changing our town, our college, and our country forever.

Our students jumped to action -- filling a need where they saw it -- in a spirit of service that has repeated itself throughout Gettysburg College's 181 years.

Later that same year, David Wills, an 1851 graduate of the College, was appointed by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to procure land for a national cemetery to bury the Union dead. Wills not only handled the arrangements for the cemetery, but took it upon himself to invite President Lincoln for its November 19, 1863 dedication. Wills hosted the president at his home the night before, where Lincoln is said to have finished drafting the Gettysburg Address.

If it wasn't for our own David Wills inviting the president to deliver "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication ceremony, the world's most famous oratory might not have happened.

Our students' passion for and commitment to service have only grown since 1863. Our goal at Gettysburg College is to help our students develop the capacity to solve big problems, resolve conflict, and improve our world -- to feel a responsibility to apply their education towards purposeful action for the greater good.

I've spent my career working in higher education because I'm a firm believer in the power of the individual. As someone who interacts regularly with our younger generation, I'm happy to report that these young people understand that power. Making the world a better place is the promise of our students' generation.

Earlier this month, Gettysburg College was one of five colleges and universities in the nation to be named a Presidential Awardee in the 2013 President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll -- the highest honor an institution can receive for its commitment to public service. More than 70 percent of our students engage in service-related activities, but our approach goes deeper than providing service. Our students engage with community members to facilitate partnerships and alliances that foster social justice and positive personal and community change.

When the world turns its attention to Gettysburg this year, I take pride in knowing that our college, which shares a name with a place that forever changed our country, prepares students who are dedicated to changing the world for the better. As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

And change the world we will.