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The Big Idea: A Service Year

Here’s the big idea: make a year of national service—an alternative to military service—a common opportunity, a cultural expectation, and a civic rite of passage for young people in America. Lumina Foundation is supporting Service Year Alliance (SYA), the management organization for service year work, and here’s why.

First, let’s explain what it is. A service year is a paid opportunity to develop real-world skills through hands-on service. Folks searching for a year-long work experience are matched through SYA’s web-based platform with public sector opportunities in an array of areas including education, the environment, disaster relief, health care, and many more. Among the best-known service year programs are AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, YouthBuild, and City Year. But there are hundreds of programs throughout the nation hosting service year opportunities, and the number is growing. The common denominator among these programs: nonprofit employers who are looking for diverse talent to help their organizations achieve their missions. SYA serves as an umbrella organization to make these employment opportunities easily “discoverable” to those seeking placements.

The concept of using a service year as a valuable work experience for many young Americans (the goal is one in five—or 1 million per year) clearly meets Lumina’s criteria for a “big idea.” But there’s a sweeter win-win in this work. Corps members can gain important foundational knowledge and skills during their year of service—and these can be assessed to count toward postsecondary learning and verified through the award of credentials such as digital badges and certificates. These credits and credentials could then accumulate and “stack” within education programs, putting learners on the road to a college degree. It’s critical that we open new pathways to further education for many more Americans. Lumina endorses these types of pathways because they support our goal that 60 percent of Americans hold degrees, certificates, or other high-quality postsecondary credentials by 2025.

There are several ways for colleges and universities to open these pathways for learners. The “asks” of higher education are to:

  • Recognize the service year experience for prospective students.
  • Formalize deferrals for students who are accepted to college and service year programs.
  • Give preference or special scholarships for alumni service year programs.
  • Host a service year program. This means a campus would develop a program for students or recent graduates to spend a year engaged in full-time service work to address societal needs. Programs could take place before (bridge service year), during (junior service year or capstone service year) and/or after the traditional university experience (post-graduation service year fellowship).

These types of programs allow students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to work experiences that are grounded in community needs. As Shirley Sagawa, who heads up SYA, noted last spring: “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.”

What knowledge and skills can service corps members gain during their year of work in the public sector? They include competencies in organizational management (e.g., accounting, operations, technology); education (credits toward teaching degree and education management); health care (including clinical and public health); and general 21st century skills (e.g., leadership development, negotiations, project management, technical writing, and communications).

The vision for service year is a big one for the nation. “Our goal is to grow service year opportunities to 1 million per year in the next five years,” says Stanley McChrystal, the retired Army general who chairs the board of SYA. He’s used to leading big military efforts on the ground and regards service year no differently. “Go big or go home” is his motto. “This is not the time for incremental growth in service year, which stands at 65,000 opportunities per year. We need to get to the larger scale ASAP for this generation of young Americans.”

Is this a reachable goal? Sagawa says: “It is, though it’s going to be a big lift at this time when the federal budget is so uncertain. The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service which administers AmeriCorps. It’s important to think creatively about ways to fund service year programs while we all work to ensure that important federal programs like these continue to receive support.”

The service year is an idea whose time has come.

The service year is an idea whose time has come. Many thousands of Americans are looking for placements, and this number is expected to grow as more placements become available and individuals learn about service year options. Employers also are stepping up to make their communities stronger through service year jobs. If corps members can gain useful skills through their service year and if higher education institutions will recognize their learning, this will be a win-win for learners, employers, and communities alike.