Public Service Announcement

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Valley News Issue: January 2016
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ASU pioneers a civilian leadership academy inspired by legendary news anchor Tom Brokaw.

When Tom Brokaw talks, people listen. And when he issued a challenge to American universities in a speech a few years ago, Arizona State University president Dr. Michael Crow listened.

“When less than 1 percent of our population is in military uniform, nothing is asked of the rest of us,” Brokaw said in an ASU video interview. “It occurred to me that there should be another way for young people to serve their country.”

His proposal: a public service academy that unites the public, private and nonprofit sectors to train future generations how to collaboratively tackle world issues, from water scarcity to global health initiatives. The matriculation model is inspired by the military training of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (see sidebar). “Think of it like ROTC, but it’s to produce civilian leaders for civilian roles,” Crow said on the Today show.

“Dr. Crow, as he’s apt to do, took on the big challenge and said, ‘Well, we’ll be the first ones to found one,’” says Brett Hunt, a former U.S. Army captain and Foreign Service officer who was hired last May as the founding director of ASU’s Public Service Academy in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, the first in the nation. “We’ll test it and prototype it here, and then help with the rollout of these public service academies across the country.”

Military MojoThe academy includes ASU’s ROTC and the Next Generation Service Corps, which has an inaugural cohort of 100 freshmen from 49 majors. Hunt clarifies that civilian does not mean civil service. “What we’re really talking about is an ethic of service that one can live whether they choose to go and be a foreign service officer like I did... or if they choose to go be a teacher, that service is a part of their lives.”

Cross-sector familiarization is crucial in their training, which includes internships in public, private and nonprofit sectors. “What we want you to come out of here with is a knowledge of each of those sectors. You’re not going to be an expert, but you’re going to understand the culture, hierarchy and decision-making,” Hunt says. “Because arming young people for the world that we are confronting means that very few folks are going to go get the job and 40 years later get the gold watch. That’s not what the economy looks like. People are going to... flow back and forth between those places.”

The academy is also poised to address fluctuations in generational engagement. How will millennials stack up to “The Greatest Generation” Brokaw lauds? Hunt acknowledges his students are “invested in themselves,” but says they are far cries from self-obsessed selfie monsters. In fact, some of their most stereotypically millennial qualities – tech savvy, lack of boundaries, partisan ambivalence and information consumption – make them ideal agents of change.  

“They’re not afraid to reach out to somebody, you know, Tweet at somebody who is a big decision-maker,” Hunt says. “They’re very engaged on issues and they care deeply about issues, but they’re not engaged to a party.”

For their PSA/NGSC class in November, biomedical sciences major Amy Bouhabib and business entrepreneurship major Rylee Dunkel drafted a proposal to help Fresh Express, a mobile produce market that serves food deserts. At press time, they were scheduled to pitch their solution to Fresh Express’ owners.

“I didn’t know we were actually going to solve problems, or try to solve problems,” Bouhabib says. “I thought everything would be very theoretical. In this program it’s acting now. Even if our pitches don’t work and the companies don’t take it, we tried, and it’s an actual stab at the problem.”

Dunkel, who says he’s always wanted to “make a lot of money and give it all to somebody who needs it,” says NGSC has helped him figure out how to funnel his commitment to service into his corporate career dreams.

“They’ve done an amazing job with telling us this extremely complex concept in a way that we freshmen can understand, and getting us involved with it,” Dunkel says. “We’re definitely the guinea pigs, but that’s not always a bad thing.”