A flood of books, articles, TV shows, and films marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In these attempts to understand our 35th president’s brief legacy and its tragic conclusion, a reoccurring phrase is: “what could have been.” But there is also new focus on aspects of his presidency that have always nipped at the heels of his “Camelot” reputation—questions raised by his foreign policy agenda to combat Communism, for example, and his limited contributions to the civil rights movement. 

A New York Times study revealed a 50 percent drop (60 percent to 10 percent) in the past decade in the number of Americans who consider JFK our greatest president. Journalist Adam Clymer writes that the public perception of Kennedy “has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments.”

But for all the criticism now surrounding JFK’s name, there is an aspect of his legacy of his that needs no defense: Kennedy’s championing of American youths’—especially college students’—service to those less fortunate than themselves. In October of the 1960 presidential campaign, then-Senator Kennedy spoke to 10,000 energized students at the University of Michigan, asking them: “How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” 

Senator Kennedy’s challenge to students, that they dedicate part of their lives to the American ideal of serving those in need around the world lead to the creation of the Peace Corps, an initiative that amassed the petitioned support of thousands of young Americans before the organization’s official establishment in 1961. American students immediately responded; in the 1960s, over 20,000 college students volunteered with the Peace Corps, working hand in hand with local people to improve living conditions worldwide.

But much has changed in this regard since Kennedy’s presidency, and recent statistics prompt concern about the priority of global service to the American youth. 

In the last 42 years,  210,000 young men and women have served with the Peace Corps in 139 countries, combatting health dilemmas and working to develop local business. But there has been a dramatic drop-off in participants in recent years—only 8,000 Americans are currently registered as volunteers with the program. 

In the highly-competitive and increasingly-connected world in which we live, there is no doubt that American students are under more pressure than ever to gain the skills they need for gainful employment.  

American students, by and large, lack the international experience, cross-cultural understanding and foreign language skills to successfully compete in this globalized society, and the kind of international service heralded by Kennedy could, for many, represent a step toward acquiring such skills. Furthermore, while a college degree has become essential to many high-flying careers, I wonder, if that kind of status is really all there is to a full and rewarding life? JFK and his brothers could certainly have lived the glamorous and easy life of the rich,  but were instead compelled to help others less fortunate than themselves. 

But there are encouraging signs. In the last 20 years the number of American students studying abroad has tripled, and that number continues to rise; last year, 238,232 US students studied abroad—a 3 percent gain from the previous year. 

However, if one takes a closer look, that’s really only 10 percent of the American college students. And these American students are going abroad, on average, for a shorter periods than the international students coming here. Last year, 819,644 foreign students came to the U.S. and the top three countries represented—China, South Korea, and India—comprise some of our biggest competition on the international job market. 

How can we ensure our country’s future when we’re so outmatched in this ratio of cultural exchange? It’s bad enough that only 30 percent of Americans own passports.

The College’s Office of Off-campus study does an excellent job of encouraging its students to study and serve abroad. Each year, approximately 230 Bowdoin students study away and by graduation more than half of each graduating class will have studied overseas. But, unfortunately, most American college students don’t follow suit. Most of them enter college with rudimentary foreign language skills and little curiosity about the world around them. 

 Outside of the U.S. university system, initiatives do exist to encourage students to study aborad, such as the “100,000 Strong” program established in 2009 by the State Deparment to increase the number and diversify the makeup of American students studying in China. We need several more programs like this to demonstrate the merits of international and cross-cultural experiences.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can for your country.” 

I might have been born 32 years after JFK’s death, but his 1961 exortation still strikes a powerful chord with me. There has always been a strain of xenophobia in this country, and in Congress in particular.   Putting our heads in the sand has never worked as foreign policy, but  this sentiment will only change if American youth seize the global opportunities available to them.