A new wave of social responsibility has begun washing across campuses in many parts of the United States. Like Beatles lyrics to the ears of the ''Big Chill'' generation, words like ''involvement,'' ''commitment,'' and ''making a difference'' are creeping back into the conversations of students thought to be mainly concerned with finding jobs and paying back loans.
This summer 14 Stanford University students received public service fellowships of up to $1,200 to volunteer their services for such projects as working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta; helping Salvadorean refugee children cope with the effects of violence; and researching and publicizing dangerous pesticide use in the third world.
This is only one of a number of such programs. At the other end of the country, Harvard's Lamont Fellowship Program has enabled 10 students to work on projects ranging from registering low-income Americans to vote to working for tenants' rights in New York's Chinatown to tutoring gifted minority students in Washington, D.C. The program was set up by Harvard alumnus Edward Lamont for students who normally could not afford to do voluntary public service
''There's been talk that students today are too career oriented, with no time to give something back to society,'' says Stanford University president Donald Kennedy. ''I don't think that's true. There's quite a lot of inclination.'' Stanford's Public Service Fellowship Program, says Dr. Kennedy, is one way to provide an outlet.
One of the biggest obstacles to student involvement in volunteer or low-paying social service projects is money, says Catherine Milton, a special assistant hired by Dr. Kennedy to implement a public service program at Stanford. Rising tuition costs and cutbacks in federal aid make summer and part-time jobs a fact of life for most students.
But by providing stipends, programs like Stanford's and Harvard's make it possible for students of any economic background to channel their energies into community-based public service. ''The Lamont Fellowship allows students of all income groups to work for the betterment of someone other than themselves,'' says Melinda Walsh, director of fellowships at Harvard.
The concept of linking monetary grants with student public service is not an altogether new one. For the past three years, Brown University has awarded Starr Fellowships to students who have taken a year off to do public service. Last year, 18 students received awards. ''The money is to offset the increase in tuition,'' says Susan Stroud, director of Brown's College Venture Program, ''so that taking time off is not a disincentive for students. We are not rewarding volunteer work with a large stipend. The money is part award, part relief from tuition increase.''
At Dartmouth 30 students each year receive enabling grants from the Tucker Fellowship Program to spend their 10-week vacation on a public service project anywhere in the world. The students are awarded the amount of money it will cost them in living and travel expenses to do the project. This year nine students were sent to Eastern European ''work camps'' for community service, says Jan Tarjan, director of Interns and Community Programs at Dartmouth.
The seed for Stanford's program was sown at the 1983 commencement exercises, when Dr. Kennedy exhorted the graduating class to expand their horizons to include public service. ''There was such a strong response from the students, I made an institutional effort to do more,'' he explained. His first effort was to hire Ms. Milton. A second was a conference in late February, during which Common Cause founder John Gardner told students, ''You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments.''
A group of students inspired by the conference came back to Ms. Milton's office and talked about launching a public service program for summer. Two months later the group placed an ad in the Stanford Daily, calling for fellowship proposals. Within three weeks, Ms. Milton had 72 applications on her desk.
''We originally had $6,000 - enough for 10 grants,'' she recalls, of the program funding which came from the university president's discretionary fund. ''But we had so many good proposals, we went back to the students and asked them if they could live on less. In the meantime, Don Kennedy found another $4,000. We ended up funding 14 students.'' One student decided she could live in a tent to reduce her living expenses.
A few schools have gone a step further in their programs, directly tying community service to scholarship funds.
Burlington College in Vermont seeks out private support for student scholarships, which students then earn through work in nonprofit community agencies and organizations. And last year, Stride Rite Corporation provided $5, 000 each for 10 Harvard freshmen from the inner city who agree to work for social service agencies in their own areas. The program, in its second year, is seen as a means of encouraging students from Cambridge and Boston to give something back to their communities.
Most educators and university administrators agree that students today are just as idealistic as those of a decade ago, but the impetus is different - it now comes from the administration. ''This generation of students just hadn't heard the message,'' says Ms. Milton. ''Students are reawakening. With just a little bit of encouragement, they will reach out and do this. These students are not all that different from people 10 or 20 years ago,'' she continues, referring to the '60s generation. ''It's just a matter of their leaders telling them public service is OK.''
One benefit of the new programs is that they put a seal of approval on public service - both for the students and for their parents, who don't always find social service projects acceptable. Another is the learning involved: Work in the community is ''an important complement to a formal education,'' says Brown's Susan Stroud. But for the students themselves, the rewards run close to the heart of what public service is all about.
''There is a good feeling that you've made a difference in the quality of someone's life,'' says Stanford fellow Andrea Epel, who is developing a nutrition education program for children and parents at the Belle Haven Child Development Center in East Palo Alto, Calif., a low-income community not far from Stanford. ''There is so much need in the world. I want to make a little dent in that.''