Here is a guest post by Matthew D. Shank, who became president of Virginia’s Marymount University in July.

Matthew D. Shank

My group of 22 donned gloves and bug spray and spent a warm afternoon pulling weeds and cutting back brush at a senior center in Alexandria. Not very glamorous work, but the students tackled it with enthusiasm. In all, more than 110 MU students participated that day, doing necessary tasks at a variety of locations.

I have heard it said that today’s young people are self-involved, apathetic and disengaged. But as a new college president, I am heartened by what I’ve been seeing on my campus and what I’m learning about students across the country.

In May, the Corporation for National and Community Service named 641 colleges and universities to the 2010 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. The press release announcing the honorees reported that 3.2 million college students engaged in volunteer activities in academic year 2009-10, giving a total of 307 million hours of service to their communities. The value of the services they provided? More than $6.4 billion.

Students have shown that, given the opportunity to get involved and make a difference, they will rise to the challenge. Armed with the energy and idealism of youth, they are eager to step up. And we should be eager to encourage them, for engaging in volunteerism during these formative years can establish the foundation for a lifetime of service and civic engagement.

Lately, I’ve been giving some thought to the complexity of higher education’s mission. Providing a strong liberal arts foundation has always been one of our most essential roles; intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and a broad and well-informed outlook are at the heart of the academic enterprise. Given today’s economic challenges, it is also an important part of our mission to help students develop discipline-specific knowledge and skills that will enable them to support themselves and contribute to a vibrant economy. Equally significant, we have an obligation to foster students’ moral and ethical growth. We must help them develop a commitment to serving others and a vision of a more just and compassionate society.

Marymount junior Alia Mohamed, a pre-Med student, exemplifies for me how powerful a young person’s commitment to service can be. Originally from Somalia and now an American citizen, Alia established the Mercy to Mankind Foundation in her homeland two years ago.

Though she is only 22 years old, Alia is already an experienced — and very successful — social advocate and fund raiser. In 2009, her foundation took over the management of an orphanage with 150 children that was scheduled to close; this July, they opened a second orphanage serving an additional 50 children. Now, the foundation has a well-construction project underway to provide clean water for nearly 100,000 residents of Mogadishu. The group is also planning a children’s center that will include a clinic, library, cafeteria, and playground.

In addition to its founder Alia, the Mercy to Mankind Foundation board includes students from George Mason University, Georgetown University and the University of Arkansas.

Alia Mohamed has been recognized for her efforts; the Huffington Post named her a “greatest person of the day” last month. Such recognition is unusual. More often than not, volunteers both young and old go about their work quietly, with little fanfare. They do it because it feels right, and because they want to make a difference.

Institutions of higher learning have the unique privilege of preparing students for lives of service and engagement. We can offer them opportunities to reach beyond their comfort zone; we can encourage their natural tendency toward compassion and commitment. We can, and must, nurture their potential to become leaders for positive change. This is one of the most exciting challenges I see as I look ahead to my work as a college president.