Tamara Chao

November 9, 2007

By the time college students reach their senior year, they are continually fielding a chilling question from well-meaning friends, relatives, and professors: “So, what are your plans after graduation?” It’s the moment they realize they have no clue what they want to do with the rest of their lives, let alone the next few years, and it’s the start of a frantic job search. While large paychecks and flashy-sounding titles might be appealing, some soon-to-be graduates are wary of unsatisfying private-sector work and have an interest in doing something meaningful before getting strapped down to a desk.

For those on the fence about what to do with their lives, be it a steady job, graduate school, or taking a year off to travel, here are a few reasons why you should consider service-based work as a post-graduation option:

What is national service?

The idea of national service in the U.S. originates from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program started by President Franklin Roosevelt as a part of the New Deal. The Depression-era program served as a way to employ young men in protecting America’s national resources by having them plant trees and fight soil erosion in national parks. During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, service (appropriately extended to include young women!) evolved to a mission of alleviating poverty, helping senior citizens, and engaging communities.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the National and Community Service Act that created the Commission on National and Community Service and focused on service-learning programs for youth, higher education service programs, a Youth Corps, and national service demonstration models. These programs and the commission itself were later incorporated into President Clinton’s Corporation for National and Community Service in 1993 when he created Americorps and Learn and Serve America.

While Teach for America may be the most popular and well-known of all national service programs, in reality there are a plethora of opportunities that fit just about any interest: City Year focuses on educating youth about health issues while Rural Action supports community development projects that close the divide between rural and urban communities. Equal Justice Works helps low-income people with access to legal services, and there are programs that focus on immigration services and the environment. The combined work of national service members has provided more than 637 million hours of service, worth about $11.9 billion.

Wait, but does this mean I have to work for free? But I have tons of student loans to pay off!

Unlike the high school community service programs which encourage students to complete service for service’s sake, national service organizations affiliated with the Corporation for National and Community Service recognize the commitment of members by offering an Education Award of $4,725 that can help pay for continued education and student loans. Most full time programs also offer modest living stipends, and some offer health benefits as well.

But does taking a position with a national service program doom me to a life of low-paying non-profit jobs?

Non-profit work is great, and many outstanding people devote their lives to it. But national service doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment. The experience gained in national service programs ranges from environmental sustainability to health and community development, lack of education to poverty, and more. Within each issue there is room to further hone skill sets in particular professional veins like law, psychology, or business. For example, a job as a research assistant with an Americorps nonprofit like Net Impact, which focuses on socially responsible business practices, can prepare you for all the research you will have to do in law school.

What kinds of skills will I get out of a national service job?

National and community service jobs offer valuable opportunities in leadership development, communication, and creative problem solving. Individuals who would normally be low on the totem pole because of a lack of experience can have a direct and measurable impact on communities and individuals, and often have a greater amount of responsibility than they would otherwise enjoy at a large business or corporation.

Americorps members serving with Admission Possible act as continuing education coaches to low-income youth. As mentors and program leaders, they help more than 1,000 underprivileged young people gain admission to college annually. Service members are often encouraged to create programs and initiatives and to take responsibility for community development and citizen engagement.

I know that networking can matter just as much as experience. What kinds of connections will I make if I choose national service?

National service programs like Americorps have alumni networks that span all industries and fields. There are now more than half a million people who have served as Americorps members. This not only means that there is an extremely strong alumni network that can provide support post-service, but that the impact on society is significant and sustainable and that service alumni can have a significant voice in changing the future.

But how valuably will future employers view a stint of national service?

Because of the amount of leadership, dedication, and motivation exhibited by national service members, and the challenging nature of their work, graduate schools and employers realize the value of national service alumni and the skills they bring to the table. As a result, graduate schools and employers may prefer to accept or hire service alumni over other individuals.

How can schools encourage their graduates to go into public service?

Traditionally, national and community service has been viewed with skepticism–a result of the idea that the government is simply “paying volunteers.” This perpetuates a system where only the wealthy go into social justice careers, since they are the only ones that can afford to work for free.

Some colleges are actively working to change this misperception. Tufts University, for example, recently announced that it would start a program to help students pay off college loans if they take jobs in the government or non-profit sectors. Tufts administrators said they believe it is important to have as many graduates take public service jobs as possible, without the issue of school debt influencing their career decisions. While the parameters of the loan and the eligibility requirements are still undefined, the creation of such an initiative indicates a growing belief that service to community and country is, and should be, important work and that schools should endorse service to the same extent they endorse other career options.

Tufts’s new initiative is representative of a growing trend in which institutions, organizations, and the government are actually supporting service as a viable way for society to benefit from those who have strong educational backgrounds and are motivated to give back. In an interview given to the Boston Globe, Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., endorsed Tufts’s new plan by saying that the university “is breaking new ground. It’s a welcome effort, particularly that an elite expensive college is doing this and encouraging it.” And while Tufts may be one of the first private universities to promote such a program, it seems the university is at the leading end of a new trend: A seminar hosted by the Partnership for Public Service focusing on loan forgiveness and fellowships is expected to draw more than 25 universities this November, a fact that seems to indicate that more and more schools are interested in promoting service and directly linking it with education.

With colleges and the government actively encouraging service and private sector companies and graduate schools rewarding the skills that service members cultivate, it seems that in all measurable ways (except, perhaps, salary) a short stint in service can be just as challenging, interesting, and rewarding as any other job, and can give you skills and experiences that are hard to come by as a recent graduate. It could even inspire you to spend your life continuing the work that starts with, say, Americorps. Most importantly, you get these benefits while helping society in addition to helping yourself.

Tamara Chao is a Dutko Fellow at the Center for American Progress.