Tessa Levenstein ’22

March 15, 2019

Tessa Levenstein ’22 won second place with her impassioned call for mandatory public service for young people. Her speech is titled “A Better Way to Grow Up.” [Transcript]


I believe that I am going about growing up the wrong way. In fact, I believe that all young Americans are going about growing up the wrong way. Roald Dahl dedicated The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar with affection and sympathy to all young people who are going through that long and difficult metamorphosis where they are no longer children and have not yet become adults. This speech is dedicated to the same, in the hopes that this metamorphosis need not be so long and so difficult.

I crave a rite of passage for myself and all young Americans, a shared experience that hoists us into young adulthood. The benefits of this rite of passage I predict will be wide-reaching. Individuals will better navigate young adulthood, Americans will experience greater economic mobility and our country will be better united. 

Currently, in America, there are two main paths that teenagers follow after high school: go to college, or enter full-time employment. This decision is largely based on economic ability. College is a luxury that many are not able to afford. However, in America, a college degree is necessary for economic mobility. In 2013, an American with a college degree made 98 percent more an hour than an American without a college degree. An American with a college degree will make 900,000 more dollars over their lifetime than an American without a degree. In other words, the American economic system punishes people who are unable to or who choose not to achieve a college diploma.

As for the students who choose to go to college after high school, most, I would argue, are not ready. The stress of college paired with the stress of leaving home is having massive repercussions on the mental health of the student body. Sixty-two percent of undergraduates report feeling overwhelming anxiety. One in three freshmen struggles with a psychological disorder. Colleges, and you can see this at Amherst, they are scrambling to meet the ever-growing demand for mental health support, but still, at the end of the day, one in three freshmen don't return for their sophomore year. Only 20 percent of college students complete their degree in four years. Only 57 complete their degree in six.

The decision that one in three freshmen make to return home can be devastating for parents and children alike. It's extremely expensive for families who could've spent the money paying for their retirement or another child's education, or for the student who's left deeply in debt without the degree that had promised to help them pay it back. And it can be deeply, deeply demoralizing for young people who feel like they've failed at the first thing they attempted as an adult.

It does not need to be this way. The system that we have in place is not tried and true, it is new and it is not working, so let's change it. College is not the rite of passage that young Americans need. Instead, after high school, all Americans should be required to enroll in two years of public service. This work could be with Americorps, or the Peace Corps, or Teach For America, or the military, or the National Park Service.

These programs are already in place, and they offer their young members money towards college, student loan deference, and the opportunity to live two years independently as an adult but still supported. Young Americans will start adulthood on a more equal footing. Every 20-year-old will have two years of job experience under their belt. Every 20-year-old will have marketable skills, the opportunity to meet with potential employers and be introduced to a wide network of people that they otherwise would not have met. A college degree will not be necessary for good employment and the economic advancement that comes with it. The people who then go on to achieve a college degree will do so with the knowledge that it is integral to achieving their goals.

College will not be a non-decision, or a decision made out of economic coercion. The stress of college will be cushioned by two years of semi-independent living and students who otherwise would not have been able to afford college will have two years' more savings to put towards their tuition.

The largest-reaching benefit, I hypothesize, will not be felt on the individual, but on the national level. America is a sprawling country full of people who disagree with each other, and more and more, people who are separated ideologically are also separated geographically. If all Americans start adulthood by working with strangers in service, they will meet people who truly reflect America's diversity. Americans desperately need something shared, something that we all have in common. Americans need to talk to each other while we are still young and idealistic and want to save the world.

To be clear, I am not trying to encourage young people to drop out of school, or trying to diss higher education in any way, shape or form, and while I do believe that gap years can be helpful for the individual, they will not solve the wider-reaching issues of American disunity or lack of economic mobility. This program needs to take place on the national level.

So, as the 2020 election cycle draws ever near, keep your eyes peeled for mentions of mandatory national service. The debate usually resurfaces once every four years. Obama supported it in 2008. However, this debate only includes the voices of middle-aged politicians, and that weakens it. So if you notice it, you as teachers, but especially as students, have to speak up. Let your country know that there is a better way to grow up, one that reflects our generation's commitment to equity, thoughtfulness, idealism and stewardship.

Let your country know that you are ready to save the world.