Civic Engagement and Volunteerism for Alumni of U.S. Exchange Programs

Cher Monsieur le Directeur du Centre Culturel,

Cher Monsieur le Coordinateur de l’American Corner,

Chers étudiants,

Good afternoon.  I thank the Cultural Center Director and the American Corner Coordinator for hosting this meeting.  I would also like to thank the alumni of U.S. Government exchange programs in Thiès for coming to meet me today.  Exchange programs are near and dear to me.  My experience as an exchange student in Japan changed my life.  This formative year set me on the path to becoming who I am today — U.S. Ambassador to Senegal.  So I always appreciate meeting our alumni, and especially enjoy hearing your stories.

I want to speak with you about civic engagement and volunteerism in the United States.  Chances are, you have had some exposure to these topics while on a U.S. Government program.  Both of them are central to American society and I and my colleagues believe that civic engagement and volunteerism have shaped our country.

From our country’s earliest days, Americans worked together to improve their communities.  And they worked together for no pay, as volunteers.

Many Americans vividly recall President John F. Kennedy’s famous admonition — “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  President Kennedy, of course, founded the Peace Corps, which has had a tremendous impact on many countries around the world, including Senegal.

As President Barack Obama wrote in his autobiography Dreams from my Father, “the best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.  Don’t wait for good things to happen to you.  If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope; you will fill yourself with hope.”

From our country’s earliest days, Americans worked together to improve their communities.  And they worked together for no pay, as volunteers.

Early residents of American cities took responsibility for street lights, as homeowners took turns hanging lanterns on their gates.  I find it particularly interesting that one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, organized the all-volunteer Union Fire Brigade in his home city of Philadelphia.  Today, more than 70 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers.

America’s leaders have always encouraged citizens to be politically involved and to volunteer their services on behalf of their neighbors and country.  This spirit of cooperation continues to be a part of our national character.  Today, religious organizations are the most common outlet for community service, followed by educational and youth service.  Through these organizations, volunteers are most likely to distribute food to the needy, fundraise, or teach.  Most people get involved when a friend asks him or her to join in.  This should serve as a reminder to everyone involved in community service to reach out to friends and family to encourage them to pitch in.

I would also like to mention that when teenagers volunteer, they tend to stay involved in helping their communities for their entire lifetimes.  Therefore, many schools in the United States have programs to encourage volunteer service.

Even as they enrich the lives of others, volunteers themselves are also enriched.  Giving back is personally rewarding, while also providing volunteers with the skills they need to succeed later in life.  Through community service, people can build networks and connections while acquiring useful experience or training.

In conclusion, I would like to commend the efforts of Senegalese youth across the country to provide for their community, through youth associations, and other means.  I encourage you to inspire others by continuing to give selflessly of your time and resources.  The United States stands with you in these efforts.

Thank you very much for listening to me.  I am eager to hear from you how your exchange programs impacted on your life and how you build upon your U.S. experience to advance your communities.