Service Years in Higher Education: The New Pathway from Learning to Career

03/07/2016 10:46 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2017
United States Capitol Rotunda. Senate and Representatives government home in Washington D.C.
United States Capitol Rotunda. Senate and Representatives government home in Washington D.C.

More than three decades ago, I had the opportunity to do a junior year away program offered by Smith College in Washington, DC. Along with a dozen other students who were part of the Jean Picker Program, I spent a summer and a semester interning on Capitol Hill. I didn't get credit for the internship itself, but took a political science seminar in the evening and wrote a long paper at the end, which enabled me to return to college in the spring with enough credits to graduate on time. My experience with the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, as it was then called, was transformative. I attended Senate hearings, drafted floor statements, and was trusted to sketch out ideas for legislation. I found great role models in the staffers I worked for and discovered that many had law degrees. I came back to the Senate Labor Committee after law school, and can trace literally every job I have had since then to that first internship. Not only did it better prepare me for a career, but the experience also laid the foundation for my ongoing commitment to service.

Today students have many more options for off-campus learning experiences. They can study at another university in the U.S. or abroad. A growing number of higher education institutions offer co-op experiences where students receive credit, and often pay, for work in their field. And today, the opportunity exists for a select few to spend a year in service -- helping others while gaining real-world experience.

Unfortunately, the service year experience is too often disconnected from higher education. These experiences are seen as somehow distinct from the traditional academic and professional path, as opposed to being integrated into the fabric of our higher education institutions. However, a handful of pioneering schools have realized the power that an immersive learning experience has on students. Tufts University is piloting a "1 plus 4" option, where students have the opportunity to spend a year in service before they begin their freshman year. Tulane offers a "4 plus 1" option, where students can do a year of service in New Orleans after graduation. These universities have made service a priority by emphasizing that it is a part of education, not distinct from it.

Next month, I'm greatly looking forward to participating as a judge in the second annual Service Year + Higher Ed Innovation Challenge at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC. The Challenge encourages all post-secondary institutions to propose creative ideas for connecting a year of service to academic credit- encouraging students to progress towards on time graduating while preparing them for the workforce and a life of engaged citizenship. Service Year Alliance, in partnership with Campus Compact and the Corporation for National and Community Service, is sponsoring the Challenge, inviting postsecondary institutions to develop credit-bearing service year experiences. For the second year in a row, the Lumina Foundation is sponsoring a total of $100,000 in prizes for the winners. Those interested in applying can still apply through March 11 at sychallenge.org.

Last year, three postsecondary institutions won the Higher Education + Service Year Innovation Challenge that took place at the Aspen Institute. In the private university category, Drake University won $30,000 for its Engaged Citizen Corps program for select freshman to support Des Moines's economic and community development, earning 24 credits and $8,500 for the 9 month, 32 hour per week experience.

In the public university winner category, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth also won $30,000 for its Community Health Work Advocate! Navigate! Educate! Program that offers a service year to train students as Community Health Workers. The students will receive tuition waivers and academic credit.

And while it may be challenge for community college students to serve far from home, Miami-Dade College Changemaker Corps, which won the prize for the community college category as well as the audience choice award, for a total of $40,000, helps to solve a problem that may plagues many colleges: student retention. The Changemaker Corps Peer Mentoring program recruits former foster care youth enrolled at the community college to work with 20 other former foster youth who are students, helping them navigate the unfamiliar world of financial aid, course registration, and other challenges. Launched in 2015, this program offers academic credit for coursework associated with the service year experience as well as professional development for the Changemakers.

At a time when higher education institutions are under scrutiny for the employability of their students, service year opportunities can be a win-win. Not only do communities benefit from the contributions of students, but the students themselves find motivation and meaning in their experiences. They, like I did, may find their life's work. More than 350 employers have pledged to hire service year alums and research shows positive correlations between service-learning and career choices, as well as the improvement of academic performance, critical thinking skills, leadership, and racial understanding. Longitudinal studies of AmeriCorps members similarly show higher levels of community engagement than a matched comparison group who applied to, but did not serve.

Education at its best isn't just about learning for its own sake, nor only about readying students for work. It prepares the citizens we need to make informed decisions, become active in their communities, and take responsibility for the future. Service years offered by postsecondary institutions do all of these.