Heading into Public Service
Like everyone serving in World War II, Jacob Levin's grandfather had to wear combat boots. As a pilot, that proved problematic. His boot got stuck under a pedal during a training exercise, causing the plane to crash. Family lore says he walked away uninjured and wrote to his commanding officer about what had happened. The result was an Army-wide directive that pilots could wear less cumbersome dress shoes. His grandfather, safely shod, went on to fly dozens of missions in Europe.
"We've been in public service for some time," jokes Levin, one of just 58 winners of a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. The federally funded $30,000 grant supports juniors and seniors who agree to work in public service for three of the seven years after earning their graduate degrees.
A junior known to most as Jake, Levin expects to graduate in 2016 from Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College with a double major in political science and philosophy and a minor in history.
He says public service is "hard-wired" into his genes. His mother is a clinical social worker, his father a teacher and his other grandfather was a Justice Department attorney. Serving his college community, he was recently was re-elected to Brooklyn College Student Government.
Levin's public service journey began with constituent casework. During a yearlong internship with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, he helped veterans with benefits, discharge status upgrades and other issues. He also coordinated a team of interns who helped Gillibrand select her nominees for the federal service academies from more than 650 applications. For his Truman application, he prepared a policy proposal aimed at improving hiring practices at the Veterans Affairs Health Administration.
He also interned with the Mayor's Office of Veteran's Affairs and has volunteered for both the city Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Homeless Services.
Although most of Levin's political experience has been in New York, he says, "My political education began growing up in New Hampshire, which gets very active in primary season. During my last year of high school in 2012, I worked for a newspaper photographing presidential candidates. It was a great way to learn about politics." He keeps his legal residence there, for "my liberal vote means more in New Hampshire than in New York."
Levin's biggest public service accomplishment to date is creating TEDxCUNY, a University-wide version of the idea-spreading TED Conference, whose provocative talks have garnered billions of online hits. "I said, ‘CUNY has incredible ideas. Why don't we have our own conference to share them with the world?' "
With support from CUNY central and Macaulay Honors College, he secured a license from the TED organization that makes TEDxCUNY the nation's only TEDx university conference to unite and represent multiple campuses.
At its November 2014 debut, 13 speakers discussed "access": accessing your mind, community, world and future. The conference reached capacity, and there have been more than 40,000 views at www.tedxcuny.com/videos. Levin is now organizing the fall 2015 TEDxCUNY conference.