In 2001, like most of my fellow seniors studying economics at the University of Illinois, I didn't have much of a post-graduation plan. The economy was bad and there were few entry-level employment opportunities, or at least not many that sounded interesting. Graduation crept up, then suddenly passed. I found myself someplace many recent grads do: living with my parents. I was fortunate to find a job in a grocery supply-industry consulting firm that at least approached being related to my degree. The work was challenging and gratifying, but after six months, I knew I needed an adventure before starting my career.
After considerable research, I joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program and packed my bags for Denver. What I didn't realize is that my adventure in national service would be a life-altering experience that dramatically affected my educational choices, career trajectory and sense of purpose in life.
During my first year of service, I lived and worked alongside 12 young adults from all over the United States. Though close in age, we came from different cultural, religious, socio-economic and educational backgrounds. I was exposed to new ideas, perspectives and became comfortable with having some of my own personal beliefs challenged.
During our service year we traveled across the central U.S., performing two-month-long service projects in several communities. We worked in math classrooms in an underperforming middle school in Aurora, Colorado; we built homes alongside homeowners and trained volunteers with Habitat for Humanity in Omaha, Nebraska; we ran daycare programs for second-generation Hmong refugees in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; and we were deployed with the American Red Cross to provide hurricane disaster relief along the Eastern seaboard. We worked on some of the most pressing issues facing America, and while the work was often frustrating, it was also far more rewarding than my short stint at the consulting firm.
While I expected public service work to be gratifying, what happened next was a surprise. One year of AmeriCorps turned into two; I returned as a team leader the following year, in which I received additional leadership training and had greater responsibilities. At the end of my second year, the relationships I developed during my service resulted in several post-AmeriCorps jobs with Denver-area nonprofit organizations. Feeling frustrated about career advancement opportunities, I enrolled in a Master of Public Administration graduate degree program, which quickly turned into a PhD in public affairs. My dissertation examined the longitudinal impacts of service among AmeriCorps members.
Today, as an assistant professor in the Institute of Public Service at Seattle University, I teach students how to more effectively manage nonprofit organizations and public agencies and how to affect change in communities through public policy advocacy.
My story is not unique. I have spent the past decade trying to better understand the impacts of public service by examining the outcomes generated during a service year. It is helpful to consider outcomes generated at different levels of analysis such as individuals, organizations, communities and societies:
Individuals -- My research, along with findings by my colleagues, suggests that people who serve their communities are likely to stay engaged. National service participants gain valuable training, skills, experience, and enhanced social networks. It is very common to see AmeriCorps alums continue to work in their respective service fields long after their term is finished. Over 60 percent of Teach for America members, which is part of AmeriCorps, continue as public school teachers beyond their two year term of service.
Organizations -- Nonprofit organizations and government programs that utilize AmeriCorps talent are more likely to generate meaningful impacts through their programs. For example, the presence of AmeriCorps members in educational setting has been shown to dramatically improve literacy and math performance of students. One study shows that kindergartner students who were tutored by an AmeriCorps member performed twice as well students who did not receive tutoring. As research and evaluation of AmeriCorps programs mature, I expect to find similarly meaningful results in many other settings.
Community -- At the community level, national service programs such as AmeriCorps have been shown to strengthen social capital in communities by creating new and stronger ties between nonprofit organizations and government programs. This is a promising sign that national service members are creating sustainable change in the communities they are serving. National service participants also report having a better understanding of the issues their communities are facing, a necessary antecedent for taking ownership of problems.
Democratic society -- A service year instills and inspires a sense of civic duty and civic pride among participants. Similar to military service, national service provides Americans with a shared sense of purpose, an enhanced view of citizenship and a more refined civic ethos. In an era of polarization and divisiveness, national service provides an opportunity for citizens to find common ground and produce constructive solutions.
Today, as an ambassador for the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, I apply my understanding of the benefits generated by national service to better integrate national service opportunities into institutions of higher education. I advocate for colleges and universities to link service years to academic credit, to value service year experience in the admissions process, to reward service year experience through financial aid, to recruit and employ national service alums, and to encourage students to explore national service opportunities when they visit their college career services offices.
In 2001, I was fortunate to stumble upon national service as an opportunity. Today, colleges and universities should be creating expectations of service for their prospective students and recent graduates. In an industry founded on the notion of cultivating transformative experiences for young adults, institutions of higher education would be wise to consider ways to marry their missions with the life-shaping opportunities generated through a service year.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project in conjunction with Giving Tuesday. The series, which will run for the month of November, features pieces written by Franklin Project Ambassadors, local leaders who are working with community stakeholders in 25 states toward the Franklin Project's vision of making a year of national service -- a service year -- a cultural expectation, common opportunity, and civic rite of passage for every young American. For more on service year opportunities and organizations, visit https://serviceyr.org.