The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

John F. Kennedy was elected President 50 years ago today.

His face is still plastered across every local bookstore in America. His presidency is still the standard for any handsome, male candidate. He even occasionally graces tabloid magazine covers, despite being dead for 47 years. Beat that, Tom Cruise.

Though we tend to over-amplify JFK’s influence on our society, we can still learn a lot from our 35th President — particularly his call for service at home and abroad.

While campaigning for President, Kennedy stopped at the University of Michigan for a 2 a.m. speech to students. Coming into the final three weeks of the campaign, he was tired and brief as he made his plea.

“How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” he asked the crowd. “Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

It was a good question, and one we should still ask today. Kennedy made his appeal at a respected university with pre-professional students — not unlike Penn. And yet, he didn’t stutter when he asked the best and the brightest to work for lower salaries for a significant portion of their lives, and not merely to pad their resumes. In Kennedy’s view, you wind up in a government job precisely because you are the top of your class. Forget Wall Street.

Raising the stakes for his mission, he noted that the greatness of our society is dependent on the long-term willingness of young Americans to contribute. Though the world has changed in many ways since 1960, some things haven’t. There is still economic inequality in our cities and towns. Schools are still underfunded. Children are still born into poverty. Millions across the globe lack basic infrastructure, health care and services.

As President, Kennedy made good on his speech at Michigan and began the Peace Corps — an effort that called on thousands of young, educated Americans to better the world. By 2016, the Obama Administration hopes to have 11,000 graduates serving abroad in that organization.

But where are our long-term diplomats? Why are so few seeking careers in the State Department? And domestically, many in our generation have leapt at the opportunity to participate in Teach for America. While some continue to teach afterward, we need an army of qualified teachers to remain competitive.

Money is part of the problem. We choose to pay teachers and government workers the least, and are suddenly surprised when few want to make careers out of it. According to the proposed Federal Budget for 2011, the Defense Department will receive six times more funding than the Education Department. Defense spending is 11 times greater than spending on the State Department and international development.

Service is not a scheme to get rich quick. It is certainly not the fastest way to land on the cover of Time. Still, more students should be considering a path, even temporarily, in the public sector.

College and Engineering junior Elizabeth Warren is one such Penn student. Over the last several years, she has traveled with Penn Engineers Without Borders to Cameroon, Uganda and Guatemala. But her effort is not going to end when she receives her diploma.

“I definitely plan to continue volunteering abroad after college,” she told me, “whether it’s with the Peace Corps or some other international development/health program.”

Kennedy had few domestic policy successes. His foreign policy made little headway before his death. But he remains with us for his call to take up the task eternal — service to others.

The temptations of life for an educated American are great. We cannot expect a surge of new teachers or diplomats or aid workers to appear overnight. “But,” in the words of Kennedy himself, “let us begin.”

Colin Kavanaugh is a College senior from Tulsa, Okla. He is a former regional coordinator for Students for Specter. His e-mail address is The Sooner, The Better appears on Mondays.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.