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A Well-Traveled Populace Will Make America Safer

Encouraging Americans to travel domestically and abroad will make us more secure than increasing the defense budget.

Words: Adom Cooper
Pictures: Andrew Neel

The pandemic has renewed calls to develop a universal national service program. Many of the proponents of national service focus on domestic issues and look to existing volunteer models like City Year — a program that serves schools, provides leadership skills to students, and shares its practices with school and district partners to close the gap created by systemic inequities — as a way to productively address the issues of racial inequality and scarce resources within the United States. Why not use the idea of universal, combined domestic and international service as a way to build a more robust US national security policy?

US culture’s deep insularity and the American people’s lack of global awareness has hampered our national security efforts. Our analytical capacity is compromised due to our inability to see beyond our borders, weakening our ability to assess threats and opportunities alike. COVID-19 is the latest example. This lack of analytical capacity forces our national security policy into an endlessly reactive stance, whether the issue at hand is nuclear weapons, alliance arrangements, climate security, or migration.

Travel unlocks different parts of the mind. Exposure to new and different environments, domestic and international, can forever change an individual’s outlook and how they operate. International travel especially provides the opportunity to both understand another culture up close and use newfound information to create more nuanced policies at home. But traveling outside North America is a luxury that remains out of reach for many young Americans, especially Black and Brown youth — the expense alone can be daunting. Both of my grandfathers traveled to other countries at young ages, but through military service. My maternal grandfather served in World War II and my paternal grandfather served in the Korean War. Without military service, neither one of them would have traveled internationally at young ages.

Why should military service be one of the only means available for young Americans to serve their country? A mandatory national service is currently a political non-starter, but there is another way: The Compass Project.


No one should have to be born into money in order to travel domestically or internationally. The idea of study abroad should not be reserved only for those who attend four-year universities. No matter where you fall on the scales of education, race, class, or gender, you will have the chance to travel. The ultimate goal is to create a national consciousness that continually attends to and reflects on what is happening abroad. By providing international experiences to a broad swath of young Americans, we can develop a citizenry that more closely observes the connections between domestic and foreign affairs.

To this end, I propose the creation of The Compass Project: a universal, short-term travel exchange program that would allow every US person of high school age, both in public and private institutions, the opportunity to volunteer for four weeks each summer, totaling 16 weeks. Each person would spend the first two summers volunteering domestically within the United States and then abroad over the next two summers.

The Compass Project will be the first of its kind to offer combined domestic and international service opportunities for participants under the age of 18. The intent is to give each individual an opportunity to serve domestically and internationally before they are old enough to vote for the first time. Before they ever head to the polls, each individual will be exposed to different domestic and international environments to help craft a holistic worldview. Currently, there are two well known service programs, AmeriCorps that focuses on domestic service and the PeaceCorps that focuses on international service. Both of these programs require participants to be at least 18 years old and do not combine domestic and international service, while The Compass Project would do just that. After each service experience, the participant will submit a report detailing their experiences and what they learned. The purpose is tri-fold: allow participants to read about each other’s experiences, provide the general public access to read about the participants’ travels, and expose individuals younger than high school age to the types of experiences that could be waiting for them.

The idea of study abroad should not be reserved only for those who attend four-year universities. The ultimate goal is to create a national consciousness that continually attends to and reflects on what is happening abroad. By providing international experiences to a broad swath of young Americans, we can develop a citizenry that more closely observes the connections between domestic and foreign affairs.

Unfortunately, equity in participation for current service programs is glaringly absent, such as 79% of AmeriCorps alumni had at least a four-year college degree in 2016. Similar to unpaid internships, these programs are predominantly populated with folks from Eurocentric backgrounds who can afford to participate, while those from non-Eurocentric backgrounds face many barriers to entry, including financial. Personally, I participated in a program called WorldTeach and was one of two Black people in a group of 20+ volunteers to Namibia in 2008 in between my junior and senior years of college. I chose WorldTeach for two reasons: as a young Black man, it presented an opportunity to visit the African continent for the first time and to do so in a service capacity. The experience was transformative for me and similar opportunities should be available to all. The Compass Project would be an all-inclusive program that provides opportunities for everyone to serve, regardless of your socio-economic and family background, financial status, where you grew up, where you went to school, etc.

Existing programs, such as Service Year Alliance, in conjunction with our embassies, consulates, and existing international programs (i.e., the Fulbright Program along with the PeaceCorps), could be leveraged to provide short-term volunteer and internship opportunities. Ideally, The Compass Project would also work with nongovernmental organizations and existing international volunteer programs to place young people in situations where they would have direct experience working with — and for — nationals of the countries where they serve as volunteers. The domestic portion of the program occurs first to educate and ensure each participant understands that everyone has a unique stateside experience before they spend time volunteering abroad. A recent NPR article details racism endured by Doctors Without Borders staff, and highlights the perpetual need for uncomfortable conversations, acknowledgment of microaggressions, and learning to be anti-racist.


Offering young people the opportunity to serve domestically and internationally could prove quite attractive — and has long-term, collective benefits that could make US national security policy stronger. For example, research questions the long-term benefit of summer job programs for youth, highlighting how a summer job has almost no impact on an individual’s future employment prospects. But international service could give students a leg up on a real, marketable skill: language proficiency. Within The Compass Project, students would be required to demonstrate a level of basic language proficiency prior to starting their service placement, either through “boot camp” style crash courses offered by The Compass Project or through language study in school. This could improve the sorry state of world language education in the United States and motivate young prospective volunteers to take language learning more seriously.

A program like The Compass Project would create other important ripple effects. First of all, it would be open to every young person regardless of their school enrollment status. This means the program would connect with social service agencies and dropout recovery programs (which would vary state-by state) in order to reach young people who are no longer enrolled in high school. This could harness the capacities of so-called “opportunity youth,” young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor enrolled in school.

Second, every participant would also obtain a passport, and fees would be waived for those whose families would otherwise find the cost prohibitive. Having obtained a passport and traveled once already could open more students’ minds to study abroad opportunities in college, international work opportunities, or further future travel under other auspices. For all-inclusive purposes, additional considerations must be taken. For undocumented folks and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, eligibility will be determined on a case by case basis. AmeriCorps State, National, and NCC limits eligibility to U.S. citizens, U.S. national, or legal permanent resident aliens, while only AmeriCorps VISTA is open to DACA recipients. PeaceCorps limits eligibility to US citizens. It is important to note that no step in the process, including participation in The Compass Project, can ever be used in connection with any immigration procedure that could result in deportation.


Launching and maintaining ambitious programs like The Compass Project will require a significant investment of resources. While private philanthropy might find them attractive enough to support, especially in the development and start-up phases, sustained funding will need to come from a government source. This offers an opportunity for the current movement to #DefundThePolice to connect the domestic and foreign policy spaces.

Residents are asking their local municipalities for the money traditionally spent on local police to be diverted to community services for mental health, domestic violence, homelessness, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, Black/Brown owned banks, etc. Supporting these community services in earnest will address the conditions of inequality, racism, and discrimination that create symptoms, such as violence and poverty.

An obvious parallel strategy could fund The Compass Project’s programs already outlined: Divert portions of the Department of Defense budget away from physical military apparatus such as tanks, planes, aircraft carriers, artillery, and apply those funds to both projects.

Traditional warfare is already giving way to new kinds of security threats that can’t be stopped by a tank or an aircraft carrier. What if we redirected resources away from tanks, aircraft carriers and other hardware, toward our Compass and other alternative national security strategies, at the rates now under serious discussion in US cities? Minneapolis is disbanding its police department entirely. Seattle is discussing moving 50% of its police budget into alternative community support. Meanwhile, in March 2020, the Pentagon failed its second-ever audit. From FY15 to FY21, the Department of Defense’s discretionary budget authority increased from $560 billion to $705 billion. Imagine reallocating just 5% of the $705 billion dollars to the Turtle Island and Compass Projects. With a little less money, this could spur the Pentagon to focus on smaller-scale, targeted military operations as traditional warfare is more of the past than the future, while simultaneously improving the trajectory of an entire generation of Americans. We have resources to allocate, and we must do so appropriately to address the issues of today and tomorrow.


The chance to see and live in other environments will open hearts and minds. With a collective shared experience of traveling abroad and serving as a volunteer, there will be a genuine recognition of how vast planet Earth is and how lessons can be shared across peoples and cultures. Whole generations to come could reach adulthood far better prepared to analyze the domestic and foreign implications of climate change, international economics, cybersecurity, and the whole panoply of issues before us, now and in the future.

My hope is that once this policy idea becomes reality, my children and grandchildren will have institutions and policies that support their existence, development, and security within the United States and they are also able to gain exposure to other nations, cultures, and practices.

Adom Cooper is an Operations Planning Specialist, High-Threat Programs in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the US Department of State. He is also a Truman National Security Project Fellow. The views expressed in this essay are his own.

This essay was one of the seven essays that were selected as honorable mentions in New America Foundation’s “Reshaping US Security Policy for the COVID Era” essay contest.

Adom Cooper

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