02/11/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

The Value of Service

Last week's announcement of the top volunteer-producing colleges and universities for Peace Corps service reminded us that idealism is alive and well among the next generation of adults. A diverse group of young (and increasingly not-so-young) people from across the United States still seeks to make a difference in far-flung communities. We at American University were quite proud that we ranked second among schools our size for sending graduates off to the Peace Corps, an organization with which our university, like many others, maintains a strong partnership.

Since its establishment in 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps. They represent the best of the United States, serving as ambassadors to local communities whose direct exposure to Americans may otherwise be quite limited.

We often observe service in the Peace Corps (and other organizations such as Teach for America) from the perspective of what the volunteers can bring to struggling communities. We consider the difference that these service-oriented men and women can make in the lives of those less fortunate.

Yet service is not a one-way street. Service opportunities make a difference not only to those who receive the help; they help shape the volunteers themselves. An assignment in a less developed country creates opportunities to learn from a completely different culture. Developing as a person and as a young professional means occasionally getting out of one's comfort zone. Learning how to communicate with people different from oneself is vital to success in a globalized world.

The influence of other cultures and ways of thinking will continue to shape former volunteers' perspectives regardless of their career choices, many decades on. And the self-reliance gained by such service is of tremendous value for one's career. As Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings has said, "Once you have hitchhiked across Africa with 10 bucks in your pocket, starting a business doesn't seem too intimidating." Other Peace Corps alumni include television host Chris Matthews, former Senator Christopher Dodd, and University of Miami president Donna Shalala, all of whom have cited their Peace Corps service in shaping their future.

At the School of International Service, a school that generates applications for undergraduate and graduate programs from those who see themselves as global change agents, we participate in the Peace Corps Master's International program, which enables individuals to combine Peace Corps service with the pursuit of a graduate degree. Those students make a difference in their service abroad while enriching the classroom through their overseas experiences and contributing to service in our local community.

In his 2011 School of International Service commencement address, then-Peace Corps director Aaron Williams noted that "service is not a moment, it's a mindset." For Peace Corps and other service volunteers, the years spent in formal service are just the beginning.