Drive-by service: Going to Harvard via Haiti

“Mission trips” are all the rage for affluent high school students with Ivy aspirations, reports Frank Bruni in the New York Times.

High school volunteer abroad trips for teensFeeding the homeless at home lacks cachet. Ambitious teens travel to Africa, Central America or Haiti for a week or two of “service” — it’s always transformative — they can hype in their college essays.

Dylan Hernandez, 17, who attends a Catholic high school in Flint, Michigan, tells Bruni he’s sick of seeing well-to-do classmates posing with little African children. He doesn’t see them volunteering at the Flint YMCA, where Hernandez is a long-time tutor.

Child psychologist Richard Weissbourd told Bruni he’d talked to one set of wealthy parents who’d “bought an orphanage in Botswana so their children could have a project to write and talk about” and other parents who’d done the same with an AIDS clinic in an equally poor country.

However, drive-by charity work can backfire, writes Bruni. Admissions officers are on to it.

“The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,” Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre.“Often they come to the same conclusion: People in other parts of the world who have no money are happier than we are!” she told me.

As the college admissions race escalates, some teens are starting their own charities — even though existing nonprofits may be “more practiced and efficient at what they do,” writes Bruni.

 Meanwhile, working-class and low-income teens can’t afford to travel in search of transformative experiences. Many are working to help their parents pay the bills or to put away money for college.
 Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone “who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are.”

For some young people, that would not be a revelation.

National servants

Let’s Draft Our Kids, writes Thomas Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in a New York Times op-ed. His goal is to discourage wars by putting the children of the powerful at risk  — and to provide cheap labor for the government.

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Actually, mowing lawns or pushing paper on an Army base — with no chance of deployment — isn’t “military” service and won’t put anyone’s kids at risk. The military already uses civilian workers for many routine jobs to avoid wasting the time of highly trained soldiers.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

Teaching in low-income areas!?! These are teen-age conscripts with no training. For that matter, rebuilding infrastructure? With no training?

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

Many Americans would pledge to take only minimal government help in exchange for minimal taxes, but that’s probably not what Ricks has in mind.

The high cost of finding some sort of work for unskilled 18-year-olds would be offset by providing a “pool of cheap labor” which could be loaned to states and cities, he argues. Ricks imagines unions would let $15,000-a-year (plus room and board) teen custodians do work otherwise performed by professional custodians earning $106,329, the top base salary in New York City. Those construction workers who’d otherwise be rebuilding infrastructure wouldn’t mind if draftees took their jobs.

Even if it were fair to “put millions of innocent people in involuntary servitude so that their parents would become politically active, it won’t work, writes David Henderson. Conscription won’t reduce support for war.