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8 Factors to Consider in Choosing a Service Year

Make sure you consider these 8 factors when considering a volunteer gap year.

In the fall of my senior year of undergrad, I attended a mandatory meeting with my career advisor to discuss post-graduation plans. For the few months prior, I’d felt torn about what to do after college. I didn’t know whether to follow my heart’s desire to do a year of service, or to follow my classmates, who were mostly headed to full-time jobs or graduate school. 

I finally discerned that the year of service was best for me. After I shared my intentions for a postgraduate service year, my advisor brightly countered that I could always get a “real job” now and then volunteer when I was retired. I declined. I hadn’t even graduated, and waiting till retirement to volunteer felt like a million years.

When she asked what I wanted to volunteer in, though, I didn’t know what to say. It was true that I felt certain in my choice to do a service year. But actually clarifying which programs to apply to still felt overwhelming.

After extensive discernment, I eventually settled on a service year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). And now looking back over that process — and at what I learned during JVC and afterward — I gathered some insights in this guide to help others who might be struggling to define their own service year goals. 

The following factors will help you narrow down your options and strike the right balance between comfort and challenge. Combined with some discernment and prayer, the factors below are a good place to begin your service year decision process.

Consider service programs with work placements in your potential career path. If you are unsure of where and how to start your career, a service year can be a great context for discernment. Being out of the classroom and immersed in a work environment where you are serving the common good will teach you a lot about yourself — insights that could guide your journey for years to come.

My own decision to complete a service year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) was motivated by my interest in hands-on experience in social services. I’d studied psychology and minored in public service in undergrad. JVC gave me a foot in the door to nationwide work placements in case management and counseling. Through JVC, I found a placement that had me move from Virginia to California to work full-time as a legal advocate and crisis counselor for survivors of sexual assault. It was a huge professional growth opportunity to be able to work in my desired field, in a new city, as an entry-level graduate with no clinical experience.

Housing is another factor in choosing a service year program. Some programs provide their volunteers housing with fellow volunteers or a local host family. Other programs are more hands-off; they provide a monthly rent stipend. I chose JVC because it housed me with fellow volunteers. The program requires each volunteer community to share daily dinners, social life, and spiritual enrichment. I enjoyed it immensely. You may also consider a service year with work placements near your hometown so that you could live with family and save your rent stipend.

Do you want a program that is faith-based, or secular? JVC provided retreats and tools to strengthen my Catholic faith, which was important to me. My work placement was at a secular organization, however, and that was a valuable learning experience as well. I had recently graduated from a Catholic university and enjoyed the contrast of working with people of different religious beliefs united by social causes.

Another factor to consider is location. Would you like a rural setting or an urban setting? Do you prefer your home country or somewhere abroad? Be brutally honest with your comfort zone. Reject the notion that service becomes more noble the farther away from home you are or the more extreme the work seems. You don’t have to be struggling in order to make an impact. Service right in your own city can be just as important and meaningful as flying to another continent.

And of course, finances play a huge role in both your decision to do a service year and the service year you choose. Ensure that you can afford the cost of your service year. Be aware of added costs such as flights, fundraising quotas, or program fees. AmeriCorps-affiliated programs, which provide the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award upon successful program completion, can really help you out. A year of full-time AmeriCorps service would earn an education award of more than $6,000 (awards vary by length of service). You may apply the award toward current educational expenses (like student loan payments) or save it for future tuition costs (like a Master’s degree).

Think about how the alumni network and the brand recognition of your service program could help you in the future. Alumni of high-profile programs such as Teach for America, AmeriCorps, or the Peace Corps may benefit from these programs’ reputations among employers and universities. For example, large companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Deloitte are corporate partners with Teach for America and offer alumni perks such as internal job postings. It is common for U.S. universities to offer graduate tuition scholarships or application fee waivers for AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and City Year alumni. Even JVC lists several Jesuit universities on its website that offer tuition scholarships to former Jesuit Volunteers.

Consider health care coverage as a factor in your service year choice as well. If you have pre-existing health conditions or need access to mental health care, choose a program where you could easily receive those services. Jesuit Volunteer Corps provided free, comprehensive health insurance to its volunteers during my service year. It also included mental health counseling. In other programs, you may qualify for health care through Medicaid. If your program does not provide health care, you’ll want to make sure you can afford to be self-insured and that you’ll be able to access the health care providers, coverage, and prescriptions that you need.

Finally, I recommend you apply quickly once a program piques your interest. In my experience site placements tend to accept volunteers on a first-come, first-served rolling basis. While I’d argue that service year programs placements are easier to attain than 9-to-5 jobs (surprise: fewer people want to work for free!), they are still competitive. You have a better chance at getting the best placements or your top choices the earlier you apply.

Many domestic programs start in the fall, so their recruitment cycles typically run from September to March. You could apply nearly a year in advance in some cases. For international programs, you’ll want to ensure you have time to arrange necessary paperwork, visas, or medical vaccines. Most service programs require written references, so you’ll need to allot a few weeks for your recommenders to complete these, as well.

A service year is an opportunity to expand your interior life and to make a measurable, direct impact in the lives of people who are suffering or on the margins. Many people spend a year after graduation in volunteer service because it’s a transformative experience. Ironically, I found my service year to be a more intense experience of the “real world” than any other job I’ve had.

As you go forth and apply to service year programs, I urge you to seek the opportunities that best use your strengths and passion. It’s better to accept an offer that makes you excited than to slog through a service program that “seemed more noble” but isn’t quite a fit for you. Choose work that both challenges and nourishes you. That’s where you will learn, grow, and give the most — and that’s what a service year is all about.

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