Jonah Lewis: Graduates should consider a year of community service

The harshest realization for many GW students graduating this week is that they are now responsible for living in the so-called “real world.”

If we believe our parents, and anyone else we ask, then college is supposed to be a four-year transition into the workforce or graduate school. This seems like too narrow a constraint on graduating seniors – because they are far from the only options.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Jonah Lewis

For those packing up and leaving campus for the last time as students this week, there is an alternative to pursue that’s outside the norm: service.

With hectic schedules, we often think of community service as a block of hours to cram into our Google calendars. This is not to say that GW’s commitment to service is anything short of remarkable – during the 2009-10 academic year, students performed more than 100,000 hours of service in response to a challenge from First Lady Michelle Obama.

But as full-time students, most of our service is limited to a set number of required hours for student groups, Greek organizations or service-learning classes. For some, though they may enjoy the work, the short time commitment still amounts only to a line that looks good on a resume.

This is why students should consider full-time service as an option after graduation. Taking an entire gap year allows full devotion to an act of social change, a far deeper commitment than a few hours here and there.

Unfortunately, society rarely presents full-time service after graduation as a possibility. And with only 5 percent of the Class of 2013 taking a gap year after graduation, it is clearly not the most popular route for GW graduates.

Service is chronically underappreciated even though it is invaluable to those it benefits. The Corporation for National and Community Service compares volunteer work to salaried work, and the result is surprising: Each hour of a volunteer’s time has an estimated average value of $22.55. In disadvantaged communities, a year’s worth of service that would normally be costly is free and can make a tangible, substantial difference.

The personal value of service, too, is also misunderstood. After four years of intensive academic work, it is often difficult or overwhelming for students to immediately transfer into the workforce after graduation. A study by Chegg found that a traditional college experience doesn’t necessarily prepare students for real-world work. In fact, it found that students weren’t prepared to lead or handle personal finances and lacked street smarts. This knowledge can be best taught through experiential learning, which is exactly what service is.

Volunteer programs provide a host of novel and challenging experiences – ranging from housing renovations to tutoring adults in reading to organizing job opportunities – that allow volunteers to learn about their own interests and develop skills they might use if they later join the workforce or continue their studies.

For instance, AmeriCorps alumna Elizabeth Glaser, who graduated from American University last year, will attend the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy in the fall. She told me that her time as a member of AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America program – which is dedicated to fighting poverty – shaped her decision to attend GW for graduate school.

She said because of VISTA, she “learned to create nonprofits and support and build community, so the MPA program at GW seemed like the best choice to further develop these skills.” Service can teach someone salient lessons that he or she may not have picked up while studying for a bachelor’s degree.

Alumna Karissa Broderick-Beck has spent her last year volunteering for the Appalachia Service Project, a Christian organization that repairs the homes of low-income families in states like West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina.

She called her experience “one of the most demanding jobs I have ever had, but also the most rewarding.”

Jonah Lewis, a sophomore majoring in political science and sociology and a former AmeriCorps member, is a Hatchet columnist.

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