Award-winning journalist Tom Brokaw addressed the 25th class of Coca-Cola Scholars – 252 high school seniors who share a commitment to leadership through service – with a call to action to start college not just as freshmen, but as full-fledged citizens.

“You can help change the course of our country… by making an early commitment, beginning tonight, that an unalloyed and continuing part of your life will be public service,” Brokaw said during keynote remarks at the annual Coca-Cola Scholars banquet in Atlanta on April 18.

One of the foremost observers and chroniclers of the modern era, Brokaw’s storied career with NBC included stints as White House correspondent, host of both The Today Show and Meet the Press, and 20 years as managing editor and anchor of NBC Nightly News. The author of The Greatest Generation and The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America said he has never seen the nation’s political landscape more fractured in his nearly 50 years in journalism.

“We need your help, beginning now,” he told the scholars, who represent 244 high schools in 46 U.S. states and a U.S. Department of Defense school in Germany. “We not only need to find common ground; the challenge of the 21st century is to find higher ground in America. And one way you can do so is to leave here with a personal commitment that for the rest of your life, in one form or another, you’ll find a way to give back to your country.”

Founded in 1986 to mark the centennial anniversary of Coca-Cola, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation has since awarded more than 5,250 scholarships valued at more than $51 million. A total of 50 national scholars each receive a $20,000 scholarship each year, and 200 regional scholars receive a $10,000 scholarship. Two additional $20,000 scholarships are awarded by the foundation.

“The choice that Coca-Cola made in giving you this scholarship was not just about academics alone; it was about your central character,” Brokaw said. “And it is that essential character that we’re all counting on to help us make America preeminent again – not just in the world, but here at home.”

Brokaw, a passionate advocate for helping military veterans find jobs and re-integrate into civilian life upon returning home, reminded the budding leaders that as they leave for college, other young men and women their age are fighting the two longest wars in U.S. history. He urged them to find a way to help these unsung heroes realize the American dream.

“And that American dream, in your hands, can become not just about having more cars, larger houses and fancier vacations,” he said. “It can be about improving the quality of life for all future generations and making us a more just and tolerant society… and using the extraordinary skills you have to advance not just your personal interests, but the interests of your community, state and nation.”

The Century of Women

Watching the diverse group of students walk across the stage stood in stark contrast to Brokaw’s days growing up in Yankton, South Dakota. Back then, the young men would have outnumbered the young women by a ratio of five to one, he said.

The strides women have made over the last 25 to 30 years are remarkable, Brokaw added, noting that leaders such as Xerox’s Ursula Burns and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are among the most powerful executives in business, and that more than half of the country’s medical school and law school students are female.

“This is going to be the century of women taking their place beside men in every aspect of society,” he said. “And thank God for that, because we need everyone in the arena making a contribution to who we want to become. And what we want to become is an increasingly tolerant society; one that is able to work together to find common cause.”

‘Use the Pause Button’

Brokaw, 73, also tackled technology during his remarks, cautioning the students to “be prepared to use the pause button” and to not let social media replace personal relationships. He challenged the tech-savvy group to use the latest, greatest tools to tackle the world’s pressing challenges.

“It will do us little good to tweet, text, e-mail or wire the world if we short-circuit our souls,” he said. “We must use technology wisely to advance the common good, as well.”

Watch Brokaw’s full remarks and his conversation with three Coca-Cola Scholar alumni about education, global development and the global advancement of women.

Read inspiring stories about Coca-Cola Scholar alumni and their journeys.