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February 11, 2022

Taking an intentional gap year through AmeriCorps service

Originally posted by Gap Year Association

For some, taking a gap year can be intimidating. You’re just out of high school or a recent college graduate, unsure of where to take your next step. Travel is an option, but it can be expensive. Doing an internship is an alternative, but often, internships are unpaid and can be highly competitive. For Justin Harrison, an AmeriCorps service term seemed like the perfect fit. 

Justin was two years into a four-year degree at New York University, but he was stressed about his future. He had realized that engineering and web development wasn’t for him, and was thinking about changing his major or transferring to a different university. With two marketing and communications internships under his belt, and a feeling of restlessness ever-present in his mind, Justin started thinking about taking time off from college to figure things out. 

“I think people often think of [a gap year] as before college or after college, but for me, I found it really rewarding to take that time in the middle of my degree and have that preview of real life.”

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Taking a gap year

It was important to him that he’d be able to justify his gap year by finding an opportunity that would allow him to take some “time on” rather than time off. Other considerations he had were that he wanted to explore professional development opportunities, find something that was a short-term commitment, and wouldn’t break the bank. 

When Justin found out about AmeriCorps service through Reading Partners, he was hooked. It was the perfect opportunity: a year-long commitment, a chance to hone his marketing skills, and a way to explore his passions in a brand new environment. 

“It was sort of like everything fell into place.”

Reading Partners and the literacy challenge

Reading Partners is a national nonprofit that mobilizes communities to provide students with the proven, individualized reading support they need to read at grade level by fourth grade. In each of our 12 regions across the country, we pair volunteer tutors with students in our partner schools, so they can work together through our highly effective literacy curriculum to unlock student potential and turn students into lifelong readers.

Justin’s role with Reading Partners’ was to serve as the national marketing and communications coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA from August 2017-August 2018. He managed Reading Partners’ social media accounts, increasing our following by thousands of followers in just one year. He also led the production of campaign videos, created infographics, handled social media analytics, and facilitated social media team meetings and trainings. 

“It was a test run for what life would be like after college.”

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During his year as an AmeriCorps VISTA, Justin found that even though this role gave him the most responsibility he’d ever had, it was also the most rewarding. He dove headfirst into his service term, starting with learning more deeply about the literacy challenge in the US. 

As of 2019, only about one-third of our nation’s fourth graders can read proficiently. Once students start to fall behind in reading, they tend to fall faster and further behind their peers with each year. Additionally, nationwide, only 21 percent of students experiencing poverty, and 35 percent of students overall, are reading proficiently by the fourth grade (NAEP). These numbers have not changed significantly in the past 15 years.

The literacy crisis in the US is significant, and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a challenge that requires immediate and expansive action. Gap year students have a unique opportunity to make a huge difference by completing an AmeriCorps service term with Reading Partners. But for many students or recent graduates taking a gap year, spending time abroad is an understandably attractive option. 

The thrill of leaving your hometown, experiencing another culture, learning about global issues, and maybe picking up a new language are all enticing aspects of taking your gap year in a different country. But there’s something to be said about being a part of the solution to challenges here in the US. For Justin, as well as everyone who serves with AmeriCorps, his service term allowed him to connect meaningfully with a community in his home country.

“I would really encourage students to treat their gap year as an exercise in taking your time in life and finding comfort in a non-traditional path.”

children's literacy

The advantages of AmeriCorps service

Whether the community is a single neighborhood, or in Justin’s case, nation-wide, it’s incredibly valuable to have an AmeriCorps position that focuses on overcoming obstacles right here in the States. Justin was serving in a capacity-building setting, where he didn’t work directly with the students we serve, but rather in an essential behind-the-scenes position that expanded our brand awareness, encouraged folks to volunteer, supported regional teams in their marketing efforts, and provided the indispensable service of social media management in this increasingly digital world.

Not only was Justin serving a national community of students and families during his gap year, but he also had the opportunity to build relationships with other AmeriCorps members and participate in professional development opportunities led by the VISTA leader. 

One opportunity he participated in was his VISTA Leader’s professional speaking group. Along with the other VISTAs in his cohort, Justin delivered planned and impromptu speeches on a variety of topics. For him, it was a fun, low-stakes opportunity to practice his public speaking skills. When he went back to college to finish the last two years of his degree, he was able to take those skills and apply them to his class presentations.

Another highlight of Justin’s service term was the MLK Day of Service. Each year, during the national days of service, AmeriCorps members come together across the country to complete a service project for their communities. That year, Justin’s cohort met south of San Francisco to work on an environmental restoration project together. When he stepped out of the office with a group of people he’d been serving with, he had one of the most memorable days of his service term.

“One really rewarding thing was the relationship-building part of everything–being able to come to this organization and going through the same service experience [as other people].”

In addition to professional development opportunities and service days, Justin also got to enjoy all the other aspects of AmeriCorps service. Loan forbearance, the end-of-service Segal Education Award, a living stipend, relocation allowance, medical and dental reimbursement, and the opportunity to join a robust alumni network are all offered to those who serve. 

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Justin’s positive AmeriCorps experience isn’t an anomaly. The 2020 Gap Year Association National Alumni Survey includes data from the AmeriCorps Alumni Outcomes Summary Report in 2015, showing the following findings:

  • 98% of those surveyed reported that it allowed them time for personal reflection. 
  • 98% of those surveyed reported that it helped them develop as a person. 
  • 97% of those surveyed reported that it increased their maturity.
  • 96% of those surveyed reported that it increased their self-confidence. 
  • 93% of those surveyed reported that it helped them develop their communication skills. 
  • 84% of those surveyed reported that it helped them acquire skills to be successful in their career.
  • 77% of those surveyed reported that it helped them find purpose in life. 

From the many benefits of AmeriCorps service to the fact that a service term is perfect for a gap year to the way AmeriCorps acts as an on-ramp for your dream career, it’s no wonder that recent grads and those in the middle of their degree are opting for a service-oriented gap year.

Learned lessons from a gap year

Despite not knowing much about marketing before starting his service term, Justin thrived during his gap year. Serving with an organization like Reading Partners gives AmeriCorps members an inside look into how nonprofits operate, essential information for those looking to start a career in that field. It’s also a powerful resume builder.

For Justin, having that year-long experience serving with a national nonprofit gave him a leg up in the competitive internship and job market as well as a confidence in his college courses that he didn’t have before. After his service term, when he went back to finish his degree, he was able to approach classes with a new perspective and a year of professional skills under his belt, such as public speaking, time management, and project leadership.

In fact, when he returned to school after his gap year, he found that his entire mindset had evolved. Justin felt more confident in his ability to choose his own path and his own pace. While every student’s situation is different, the benefits of AmeriCorps service as a gap year may be enough to convince anyone to take some “time on.” 

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An AmeriCorps service year is not only doable for college students but also extremely rewarding. When you purposefully place yourself in a new environment and seek out experiences outside of your college campus, you set yourself up for growth and learning in a way that’s hard to find elsewhere. 

Justin’s service term set his life on a positive trajectory and left him with a passion for service. Moving forward, that’s one important thing he wants to take with him: 

“I’m a firm believer in the mental health benefits that come along with doing volunteer work to support your community, and am hopeful that I’ll be able to find ways to be more involved in the future.”

In this day and age, a lot of things are uncertain. The pandemic has upended the future of education, job opportunities, many people’s personal lives, and more. But one thing that’s not uncertain is the impact of service. When you take a domestic gap year, you make a profound difference in the lives of students in your community. And, most importantly, you can empower them to reach their full potential and start them on a journey to being lifelong learners. 

Looking back, Justin had just one reflection on his service term:

“I wish this was more common! I wish more students did what I did.”

Americorps

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