Nov 12, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Traveling the world isn’t the only way to spend a “gap year.” Also gaining ground among students looking not only to change their own lives, but to also to change the world around them? Service years. Here’s a closer look at this increasingly popular pursuit.

What is a Service Year?

A service year is “a paid opportunity to develop real-world skills through hands-on service. It’s an extraordinary year that transforms your life and your community. It’s not your typical path; it’s an experience for A Better You. A Greater Us,” says Service Year Alliance, an organization dedicated to making service years more common among today’s youth.

There are many different types of service years available through many different nonprofit and public organizations in both urban and rural communities. Focus areas may include:

●     Aging

●     Animals

●     Arts & Culture

●     Community & Nonprofit Development

●     Disability

●     Disaster

●     Economic Security

●     Education & Youth

●     Environment

●     Health & Nutrition

●     Homelessness & Housing

●     Legal Assistance

●     Public Safety

●     Veterans & Military Families

Service years aren’t limited to students taking gap years. Everyone from high school and college students can participate in service years, as can individuals simply trying to find their paths. In other words, as long as you have the time, you can fit a service year anywhere into your journey.

5 Benefits of Doing a Service Year

Service years offer many advantages to participants, including the following:

1. You will have the opportunity to make a real difference.

Whether you seek out a service program in your local community or thousands of miles away, service years give you the opportunity to contribute to real and meaningful change.

Says Service Year Alliance, “Service years have the power to revitalize cities, uplift and educate children at risk, and empower communities struggling with poverty. They can unite the most diverse nation in history, binding people of different backgrounds through common cause and inspire the next generation to become the leaders our country needs.”

2. You will meet new people and make new connections.

Many high school and college students live relatively sheltered lives. Service years give you the chance to meet new people from all kinds of backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures. While taking a service year in a remote location allows you to explore new regions, even a project in your own backyard can yield new perspectives.

Enthused service year participant Jason Hughes of his experience as a youth mentor at Soaring Eagle Elementary “Traveling to a new city for my service year position meant exchanging the comforts of home for an exciting new experience. Keeping an open mind and hard work ethic during my first few weeks allowed me to truly embrace everything new that came my way, and I’m so glad I did!”

3. You’ll learn new skills.

Sure, you have the opportunity to apply your skills and talents while doing a Service Year. But you’ll also have the chance to acquire new skills, too.

Continued Hughes, “I have learned so much from serving as a mentor! Each day is challenging and different, but it is extremely rewarding. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel like I’ve made a difference and helped at least one of my students overcome a challenge. I’m proud to be doing meaningful service! This experience has helped me build practical skills that go well beyond what I learned in the classroom, such as collaboration, patience, and flexibility.”

4. You’ll boost your credentials.

The skills you learn during a service year don’t exist in a vacuum. They stay with you throughout your life, and can significantly enhance your prospects -- whether you’re trying to boost your college or graduate school application or aiming to make a more positive impression on potential employers.

5. You’ll inspire others to make differences of their own.

Edith Wharton wrote, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  During your service year, you’ll be the candle. In the days, weeks, months and years after your service year, however, you can be the mirror.

Said Hughes, “My service year left me feeling empowered to inspire others in my community! I remain engaged by volunteering on the weekends and lead by mentoring incoming Soaring Eagle Elementary corps members!

Service Year Alliance is just one program which facilitates the process of matching service year candidates with opportunities in their areas of interest.  Programs like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and numerous nonprofit organizations also provide service opportunities for thousands of people every year. And, of course, these programs aren’t limited to the US. Organizations all over the world, including in Europe, are actively in search of volunteers.

Mahatma Gandhi said, ““The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” If you’re ready to discover the joys and benefits of service for yourself, a service year may be the perfect way to do so.



Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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