09/10/2012 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Understanding Our Peers

Hard as it is to imagine a climate of non-partisan unity -- especially now, amidst a season of pre-election warfare -- that was in fact the case eleven years ago this month. For a brief moment following the devastating events of September 11, 2001, our country stood together and acknowledged the fragility of our everyday existence as we knew it. For those of us who were in school that day, we remember sitting in our classrooms, watching the TV monitors with confusion and distress, sensing that what had just happened would be significant in ways we could not understand. Indeed, 9/11 shook the world in which we would come of age, whether we realized it then or more deeply in the decade since.

It wasn't until I was in another classroom six years later -- this time in my final year of college -- that it truly hit me. My professor began our seminar one day by asking us to raise our hands if we knew someone serving in the military. I looked around the room and saw a few scattered hands in the air, though my own remained firmly planted in my lap. The U.S. military was engaged in two theaters of war, I was studying global security, and yet I could not think of a single person I knew who was serving -- nor had the thought previously crossed my mind. While I had the option to process academic theories of war from behind a desk, my peers who had volunteered in the armed services were being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This realization stuck with me as I moved to D.C. to work as a defense consultant and began interacting with service members on a daily basis -- many of whom my direct peers. I wanted to understand more about their stories and experiences, and the reasons that ultimately compelled them to serve. I was struck by the individuality of a group which is often perceived as all one "type," but whose members each have individual motivations for their desire to be part of something greater than themselves.

There is no doubt that we are the most connected generation in history, thanks to the ever-increasing proliferation of information technology and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. Yet it seems that despite the ease with which we can communicate with individuals anywhere in the world, on any given topic, we (myself included) tend to follow news from sources and figures whose opinionswe already agree with. As a result, we risk becoming more disconnected, more soloed in our thinking and worldviews than ever before.

As a generation that predominately grew up in the wake of 9/11, we all have stories about how we were affected by the events that day. We as millennials have embraced service in a myriad of meaningful ways, all over the country and around the globe. But we remain disconnected in our understanding of peers who have pursued different pathsof service -- civilian, military, or otherwise. Stereotypes and preconceived notions exist naturally toward people and groups about whom we know very little; but we are losing out on a critical opportunity to recognize and harness our collective drive to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Our generation will continue to face great challenges in the 21st century; we should acknowledge and leverage the great reserve of talent andexpertise among us.

What began as a quest to discern the civil-military divide, has evolved into The Service Project: an oral history of this generation and themyriad ways in which we are serving in and beyond our communities. It is my great hope that in sharing these stories, and providing a forum where individualscan contribute their own videos, essays, articles, and ethnographies, that preconceived notions about service will be challenged, and perspectives toward our peers will be enriched.

For The Service Project to effectively achieve its mission of educating, connecting, andcoalescing individuals around service initiatives, we need your help. Please send us your stories, articles, and essays. Think of what more we could achieve if we made the effort to engage with peers we don't yet know.