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Inspiring Tomorrow’s Public Service Leaders

Students across eight universities across U.S gather at Montclair for NextGen Summit

Posted in: Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships

NextGen students help pack grocery bags at local food pantry.
NextGen Service Corps members from across the country volunteered at Father English Community Center and St. Peter’s Haven in Paterson as part of a weeklong summit at Montclair State University.

Public service-focused students from eight universities gathered at Montclair State University recently for the inaugural NextGen Service Corps Summer Summit for a week filled with networking, learning and community service opportunities.

Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell, Volcker Alliance and NextGen staff welcomed the 33 students who hailed not only from Montclair but also from Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Indiana University, University of Nebraska – Omaha, University of Washington, Syracuse University, University of Houston and City University of New York.

Montclair’s Natasha Soto, a rising sophomore and International Business major, said she was energized by participating in the event.

“My biggest takeaway during the NextGen Summer Summit was having the opportunity to collaborate with universities nationwide on a similar passion of public service,” Soto said. “Hearing about the different universities’ programs inspired me to apply them to ours here at MSU.”

A female student lifts a box of canned goods as other students line up behind her.
Montclair’s NextGener Natasha Soto lifts a box of canned goods at the food pantry in Paterson.

President Koppell, who created the NextGen Program in partnership with the Volcker Alliance while he was at Arizona State University and brought it to Montclair, gave students a history of the program, noting that while it began at ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions (where he was dean), it was designed to be much bigger than that.

“Public service is not just for people who want to work for the government. There are lots of people interested in public service, even if they don’t want to make it their job,” he explained, likening the program to a public service academy analogous to West Point or Annapolis, which train people for military public service, but for people who want to do civilian public service.

The program has now grown to the eight universities that participated in the summit. It has not been a hard sell to students. As Koppell told them: “People in your age cohort are more service motivated than my generation, and you’re thinking more about, ‘How am I going to make a difference in the world?’”

A man stands in the background addressing a large group of people seated at tables.
President Jonathan Koppell addresses NextGen Service Corps members attending the summer summit hosted at Montclair.

While that’s a tall order, Koppell said he and NextGen staff believe in the students’ ability to change the world.

NextGen Service Initiatives Senior Director Brett Hunt said it was important for the students to know the NextGen history, calling the inaugural summit a “watershed moment” and commending the students for being selected by faculty and staff to participate.

The week’s events, he said, were designed to “inspire and prepare the next generation of leaders to serve their communities and the nation” by providing them with tangible leadership and public-service skills. “We want to prepare you to go and do that service, that lofty goal of changing the world and making things better.”

Developing students’ networking skills was a big part of the program, said Naomi Garcia-Hector, a “NextGener” and program intern for the Volcker Alliance’s Next Generation Service Corps initiative, who is a Public Policy major and rising junior at Georgia State University.

“Public service is hard work and change is a slow-moving train – and sometimes it feels like it’s moving backwards – so to be around other students who are just as passionate and eloquent as you can be super exciting because it makes you feel like ‘OK, these are the other students who care about climate change like I do, who care about human rights and equality and justice like I do.’ It makes me feel like we’re all carrying the burden of the world’s problems together.”

A young woman stands at the front of a room, addressing students.
Naomi Garcia-Hector, a Georgia State University “NextGener” and program intern for the Volcker Alliance’s Next Generation Service Corps, addresses fellow students during the summer summit kickoff.

The NextGen students had long days both on and off campus including a day in Paterson, where they volunteered at several service agencies such as Father English Community Center, St. Peter’s Haven, Montclair Community Farms and Toni’s Kitchen. As part of its commitment as a public-serving institution, Montclair has an ongoing commitment to partnering with nearby communities, most recently with the revitalized Hinchliff Stadium and the Charles L. Muth Museum and One Square Mileprojects in Paterson.

“Not only did these students learn the importance of service but they understood the value of their efforts and how they can affect change,” said Jessica Pichardo, Project Coordinator for the Center for Community Engagement.

The NextGen students also spent a day in Manhattan, splitting into three groups based on their interests and visited the United Nations, Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Survivors Justice Project. In addition, the group had lunch with NYC Council Member Shaun Abreu and visited the 911 Memorial, as well as Paterson’s Great Falls.

The group at the UN met with Ambassador Chris Lu, who spoke to them about “the idea of being a generalist versus specialist…to have your passions but not get tunnel vision,” Garcia-Hector said. He shared with the student leaders that “public service is hard work and leadership can be lonely sometimes,” so he urged them to ground themselves, she said.

“The passion was never lacking for students,” Garcia-Hector added. “I think we’ve definitely hit our goal to be able to have students leave not only feeling more connected with the network but with the public-service community.”

The students, many of whom are passionate about addressing climate change, were in New Jersey and New York June 5-9 during an Air Quality Alert due to smoke from Canadian wildfires. They wore masks and spent as little time outdoors as possible and discussed the issue.

“We brought up the issue that America continues to face, where our country is not really willing to go through short-term pain for long-term gain specifically with climate change,” Garcia-Hector said. “It’s something that we’re stressed about because we recognize the severity of the situation – and the smog in New York and across the Northeast was a striking example of exactly what’s going on and foreshadows the kind of world that we could be looking to.”

Students wearing Montclair NextGen T-shirts load bags with food.
Sporting Montclair NextGen T-shirts, students load up food bags at Father English Community Center in Paterson.

Soto, who is passionate about social justice and has volunteered at the Red Hawk Pantry, said the week’s events inspired her to continue her path of public service. “Knowing that I am helping to make someone’s life a bit brighter is all the satisfaction I need. Having a career in public service is a selfless one, and it makes all the difference.”

The students will return to their campuses as the “keepers of the flame,” Koppell said. “You’re going to be the ones who ignite first of all, fellow students in the program, but then you’re going to become models for other students at your own universities.”

To learn more about the program, visit NextGen Service Corps.


Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos by John J. LaRosa.

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