Will the AmeriCorps Graduates Please Stand Up?

"Please stand up if you are currently serving or going on to serve in the military after graduation."

The announcer at The American University’s graduation ceremony in Washington, DC boomed from the podium. I craned my neck to look around as several handful of people stood up, some in their dress uniforms. One in the next section over was in his dress blues with his saber at his side. I clapped and cheered along with the audience.

"Please stand up if you are a Returned Peace Corps volunteer or you are planning to serve in the Peace Corps after graduation."

Another handful of people stood.  The audience and I clapped again. Then the announcer moved on to the business of graduation pomp and circumstance.

As I sat there waiting for my turn to walk across the stage, I thought to myself – wouldn’t it be great if they had added a third question: Please stand up if you have spent a year in national service or are going on to spend a year in national service. Alumni and future alumni of Teach for America, AmeriCorps, VISTA, City Year, and other programs would stand to be celebrated for their commitment to serve. 

The respect that military and Peace Corps service get are undeniably well deserved.  I applaud all those who serve to protect our country or who spend two years in another country working to make a difference. However, equally deserving of respect and acknowledgment -- I believe --  is the work that national service members are doing right here at home. The country faces many challenges from education to poverty to natural disasters and recent graduates across the country are working hard every day to do tackle these problems. Each year, 80,000 AmeriCorps members of all ages devote a year to tutoring and mentoring youth, improving health in low-income communities, restoring trails and our national parks, responding to disasters, and so much more. Their impact is tremendous.

Wouldn’t it be inspiring if colleges and universities nationwide began to recognize the work of national service programs alongside the military and the Peace Corps? If at graduations all over the country, students stood up to proclaim that they were going to spend a year earning a small living stipend in order to give back to their country. Parents, grandparents, faculty, and other students would gain a better picture of public service.  Young Americans in the audience would learn about a great opportunity. 

As colleges and universities realized the value of a year of national service in building future leaders and engaged citizens, admissions counselors may recognize the value of having served a year of service for incoming freshman and transfer students. Imagine if colleges and universities had a box to check on the common application asking if you had spent a year in AmeriCorps, and if counselors understood the value of a year of service. Many graduate schools offer scholarships for AmeriCorps alums (American University certainly does) or match the education award, but imagine if all graduate schools recognized the value of a year of service for incoming students.

This is what I believe is the best thing about national service – its value-add for everyone. It provides benefits and opportunities for Americans at every stage of life. For high school graduates, it provides meaningful work experience -- helping them find a career pathway. For college students and graduates, it is building future leaders. For older Americans, it is an opportunity to use their skills to give back in a substantial way. And for all who serve, it is the opportunity to – excuse the corny phrase – make a difference in the lives of others.

I spent a year in national service the year before I began graduate school at The American University. It was a life-changing experience that firmly set me on my path. It gave me real-world skills and the opportunity to give back to a community that had given so much to me.

Standing up at graduation to be recognized for your year of service isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of life. It would have been two seconds in a four-hour ceremony. But it is symbolic of what our country – and our colleges – value. National service needs to be added to that list of national values, right after the military and alongside Peace Corps Volunteers.

I look forward to the day when I can attend a graduation and watch as almost-graduates stand to be recognized for committing to a year of service in America.  

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