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Service work can be a blessing for others, but also for you

Back in 2001, a young woman and graduating college classmate decided to apply for a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). She was assigned to a site in Oregon, where she found herself running the children’s program at an emergency housing shelter for families experiencing homelessness.

Throughout that year, as she navigated the challenges of her role and lived in community with housemates on a modest stipend, I watched her confidence grow. She became an excellent program leader who engaged with children who were experiencing incredible stress and disruption. She developed strong communication and relationship-building skills by spending time and living with people from diverse backgrounds. She even learned excellent budget management, in part by maximizing her use of the bulk foods aisle at the local grocery store.

Today, she is an administrator at our alma mater, Loyola University Maryland, where I also work. But of more importance to me, she’s my wife and the mother of our two children. Her JVC housemates, who remain her best friends, have gone on to a variety of successful careers: physician, FEMA emergency communications manager, international school teacher, hospice nurse and MBA program director. It’s no wonder that they’ve done so well when you consider how they started their post-graduate experience with full-time service.

A full-time year or two of post-graduate service with an established organization can be the perfect stepping stone for a recent graduate to make an immediate difference in the world. That service can lead to eventual career paths that a new graduate might not be able to see in the future, whether in the for-profit or non-profit world. I think of my wife and her JVC housemates often as proof of that.

When my team and I advise students, we ask them to consider what they hope to gain from their first years of work experience. We encourage them — regardless of their career paths — to consider a career triangle with three points: job satisfaction, lifestyle and compensation. And we explain that they may have to prioritize or sacrifice in one or two of those areas, but over time, balance becomes more achievable. Many of them talk about their desire to make a difference in their communities and our world. The option of post-college service is one of the most effective ways to stretch one’s skill set, live and collaborate in community, and gain substantial individual responsibility with organizations that are often hungry for talent. Those experiences also give graduates deeper understandings of many of the issues our society is grappling with right now, including immigration, homelessness, mental illness, how socioeconomic challenges affect education and the impact of natural disasters on communities.

I stand in admiration of this generation of young people who often choose the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others as the first priority in their careers. They have faith that the other points of their own career triangle will come into balance — and they do. In my work, I continue to encounter professionals who succeed in finding that balance — and I like to think each of us can and should continue to consider how we might achieve that balance for ourselves.

Although choosing full-time, post-graduate service is not an option for many of us at this point in our careers, the holidays offer a perfect time to reflect on the impact we are having on our community through the work that we do — within and beyond our professional lives. During this season of giving, it’s worth considering how service can be a blessing to those whose lives you touch. I also wager you will discover that your service will enhance your life in unexpected and wonderful ways.

James Dickinson (jdickinson@loyola.edu) is assistant vice president for career services at Loyola University Maryland.

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