People often ask me what my most important career choice has been. That answer is surprisingly: it was my decision to do a year of service after I graduated from college. My year of service impacted every major part of my life and defined my career trajectory. I’m not talking about getting into the best grad school or landing that perfect job with a big consulting firm. I’m talking about deciding to go “all in” with your life as you both explore and commit to living a life of meaning, fulfillment and transformation.
My first job out of college
After I graduated, I stayed at my college to start a volunteer program that matched dorms with local community organizations. The program was called HAND
: House And Neighborhood Development (HAND). I worked a hundred hours a week, lived on my friends’ couches, and had an office in the gym. I think I made $6,000 a year. It wasn’t a lot of money, but during that time I created programs, brought people together, built a platform to allow others to lead and planned events that no one had ever imagined. What happened that year has defined my life’s work ever since; it served as the baseline for a lifetime of service, opportunities for leadership, and the roots for a fulfilling life.
Now it’s your turn
Hundreds of thousands of college seniors are returning home for the holidays. The number one question they’ll be asked over the break will not be “what do you want for Christmas or Hanukah?” Rather, it will be, “what the heck are you going to do next year?”
As you consider that question, here are seven things to consider:
Go somewhere else: chances are you’ve lived in one or two places throughout your life. Now is the time to play “spin the globe.” Close your eyes and see where your finger lands. Maybe there’s a place you’ve always wanted to go. Maybe you just want to get away. It really doesn’t matter where you go, just that you go somewhere else.
Surround yourself with different people: So much of what we encounter in terms of the neighborhoods where we grow up, the schools we attend, and the sports we play ends up limiting our encounters with difference. Take a job where you could meet and work with as many different people as possible. You will not only learn a lot, but you will have a blast.
Commit to simple living: Chances are you’re already broke, so this should be a no-brainer. The problem is that we think we need a lot of things that we might not be able to afford. You might not need your own place, your own car, or Starbucks every day. The first year out of school is a great time to live simply and create a habit of simple living that will last a lifetime (and save you a fortune over that lifetime!)
Live in community: Many of us want to live alone. It’s easier that way. But there are learning opportunities and rewards that come from living with other people who think differently than you or your college roommates. Life with others can be challenging , but it can be the best way to get to know others and yourself.
Explore your spiritual self : No, I’m not talking about going to church (unless that’s your thing). A lot of people identify as spiritual but not religious. I would suggest that for many, what they are saying is that they are spiritual but not institutional. Your early 20s is a powerful time to explore different faith communities and discover spiritual practices both from your own tradition and the traditions of others. The conservative stereotypes of many faith communities are well deserved, but there are also faith leaders and congregations that are welcoming, supportive, and more interested in your questions than telling you the answers.
Learn a new skill: Non-profits are great places to have your first job because they often ask a great deal from their employees. Chances are you will take on tasks that you may not be prepared for, but that you will be assigned to do nonetheless. You will be asked to do more than one thing (and perhaps everything): marketing, volunteer management, fundraising, public speaking, writing, website development, planning, writing, and of course, always cutting and pasting. In all likelihood, you’ll leave with a whole repertoire of marketable skills you didn’t have when you started.
Invest in a cause: Do something that will take every ounce of your energy and perhaps all of your time. Some people are blessed to have identified a cause they are particularly passionate about and know exactly what they want to do. Others “just want to help” or make a difference. At this point, don’t let
your indecision stop you. Try something and it might lead to something else. Because so many of the issues we are facing in the world are inter-connected, you might not end up where you started.
Service Programs that Change the World
As individuals and families contend with this question, consider taking a job with one of the programs listed as part of Service Programs that Change the World. Most (but not all) are faith-based young adult volunteer program that offer individuals the opportunity to serve for a year or more in settings around the country (and in some cases, around the world).
These programs offer a year of transformational service, while you figure out who and what you want to be.
Maybe you want to go work at Gould Farms, which offers an opportunity to work with a psychiatric rehabilitation program for people living with mental health and related challenges. Their 700-acre working farm, which brings together a dozen young adults for a year of service, is located in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts. There, they serve adults with diagnoses of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, and related mental health challenges.
Or maybe you’ve always wanted to swing a hammer or work on houses and want to spend a year serving others by repairing homes in rural Appalachia. In the midst of that important labor you will engage with people and communities that educate and inspire you about the grace and courage of the human spirit. Both Appalachia Service Project and Christian Appalachian Project offer opportunities to do just that.
Or maybe you want to work to solve the refugee crises in Germany. Brethren Volunteer Service offers that and other international opportunities for volunteers with various start dates throughout 2018.
Finding a placement
Service Programs that Change the World (ServicePrograms.org) is intended to introduce you to these opportunities and to compare "apples to apples" when it comes to looking at what different programs offer. In addition to learning about what programs offer, you can compare stipends, loan deferment options, housing, and leadership development opportunities offered by each of the Service Programs that Change the World: Class of 2018.
Will your life be ruined if you move back to your parent’s house and get a part time job at Wal-Mart? Of course not. But imagine the ways that doing a year of service with one of these groups might shape your life, not just for the one year, but for the rest of your life.