“You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Dr. King made this statement, he was emphasizing the fact that everyone, regardless of their upbringing or education level, is capable of serving others. Indeed, while the majority of the 17-24 year-olds who join City Year are college graduates or fall within that age range, more and more young people are choosing to do a year of service directly out of high school. City Year represents an attractive choice for recent high school graduates for a number of reasons, not least among them that the minimum age requirement is 17, unlike many programs which require applicants to be at least 18 years old. Additionally, City Year focuses not only on helping students succeed, but also on developing the corps members themselves into young professionals, an aspect of the program which can be particularly beneficial for younger corps members who often haven’t had significant experience living independently or holding a full-time job. As current corps member Jordan Thomas, 18, of the Ferebee Hope Elementary School team, puts it, “City Year helps improve its corps members as people. Being able to help yourself while also helping other people is the best thing about City Year.”
To be sure, most team leaders and program managers will tell you that they have seen their younger corps members mature significantly over the course of the year, gaining skills ranging from time management to public speaking. While all corps members receive the same trainings and go through the same service experience, this impact is magnified for younger corps members. “I think a lot of the benefits of doing a corps year are the same whether you’re 17 or 24—the discipline, time management, life skills you learn,” explains Matt Repka, team leader at DC Scholars Stanton Elementary School. “But the same skills will distinguish you from your non-City Year peers far more at 17 than they do at 24.”
Like their slightly older peers, corps members who join City Year after high school do so for a variety of reasons—some because they want experience in the field of education, some because they want to take a year to do service and plan out their next steps in life, and others because they are passionate about service and working with students. Learning to work with a diverse team can sometimes present a challenge for younger corps members, some of whom feel they have more to prove due to their age, or may feel intimidated. However, alumnus Graeme Meyer, 20, former corps member at Browne Education Campus and former team leader at Kelly Miller Middle School, stresses that one’s age does not necessarily have to represent a challenge or obstacle towards success. “The truth is we are different,” he says, “but that’s what makes it work. Yes the college grads have more education but the high school grads are fresh out of the school system, they are younger and have a (at times) brighter outlook on things. The entire experience is really as difficult as you make it, if you think it will be more difficult because you are younger than everyone, it will be.” Life and leadership experience aside, many corps members who come to City Year out of high school find their age to be an advantage because they are closer in age to the students and thus able to relate to them more readily. “I feel like I have bonded with and reached [my students] in a way not possible for my older peers,” observes Aldo Grifo-Hahn, 18, of the Johnson Middle School team.
While it is difficult to find a corps member who will tell you that serving with City Year is easy, it is nearly impossible to find someone who will tell you that it isn’t worth it. At the end of the day, the benefits that all corps members—but in particular corps members who are recent high school graduates—receive after their year of service far outweigh any hardships they might face. For most, it is the students who make the growing pains bearable and the work enjoyable. “The feeling of throwing yourself into something and knowing that you are making a difference in another’s life is an amazing feeling,” explains Grifo-Hahn. Corps member Marcus Williams, 18, of the Simon Elementary School team, agrees: “The fact that I am changing lives helps get past these rough times.” The challenges may be great, but corps members overwhelmingly agree that the experience of taking a gap year is one that is worthwhile and that they would definitely recommend. As Meyer puts it, “The key to the gap year is to give yourself time to think while doing something you enjoy and something you have never done before.” As for life after graduation, many find the transition to college life to be easier because they have already taken the time to develop discipline, work ethic, and life skills, the lack of which cause so many college freshmen to fall behind.
The experiences gained during a year of service are invaluable for young people who take their gap year before entering college. “Simply put,” says Meyer, “you can’t spend two years of your life telling kids they need to try their best to succeed in school so they can go to college, and then not try your best.” Alumni discover that the college experience is easier to navigate because they have moved beyond the process of figuring out their interests and are ready to begin taking action steps to prepare themselves for the future. Alumnus Maria Zare, 19, former corps member on the Kramer Middle School team, claims, “City Year helped me set long-term goals for myself. I have a very good idea of what I want to accomplish in my life and the steps I need to take to achieve them.” Honing their interests, developing professional skills, and setting goals early means that corps members leave City Year more than prepared to face the challenges of college and beyond. And perhaps most importantly, they go through this process of self-discovery and self-improvement all while helping students develop their own potential to succeed.
Katie Hanna, author, is a senior corps member on the Serve DC team serving at C.W. Harris Elementary School.