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How Your AmeriCorps Experience Can Help You in Graduate School

September 28, 2012

Today’s post originally appeared on September 25, 2012 on Idealist.org blog

This is the last post in our series about finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read all of the posts in the series.  Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, Adam Donaldson, Member Services Director at the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers,reflects on how his AmeriCorps experience helped him graduate school.  Adam graduated in 2006 with a Masters in Public Policy and Nonprofit Management from Johns Hopkins University.  Prior to graduate school, Adam committed five years to volunteer service, including AmeriCorps with City Year Columbus ’99-’00, Peace Corps Uzbekistan ’01, AmeriCorps with City Year Rhode Island ’02, and Peace Corps Jamaica ’02-’04. 

By Adam Donaldson

In 2004, I began a graduate degree program in Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University by attending the prototype university-cafeteria hamburger cook-out. While dodging bees and balancing my paper plate and slippery soda can, I was introduced to faculty and my new classmates. As I went through the jitters of meeting all the new people, I discovered that not one, not two, but several students were AmeriCorps alums – myself included.

Looking back, my academic experience was enriched by the presence of service alumni.  The AmeriCorps alums were uniquely prepared for graduate school because 1) they could apply research and theory readily to real-world situations and 2) they had more academic focus triggered by their service experience.  During graduate school you learn as much from your peers as the research faculty at the front of the class. In addition to the ubiquitous group exercises, your peers will share independent research and challenge you with their thinking.

I have been lucky enough to complete two terms of service in both City Year, an AmeriCorps program, and Peace Corps.  While attending graduate school, I was a Shriver Peaceworker Fellow, a service-learning program that integrates study, community service, and ethical reflection. While studying education and social policy, I was learning in real time how policies effected the high-poverty youth in the mentoring program I lead at my service placement.  I was putting new evaluation skills to work on my own program.

Meanwhile, while studying welfare reform I could learn from an AmeriCorps VISTA alum about the challenges of families with no bank or credit history.  While studying the difference between direct and block grants, I could learn from an AmeriCorps NCCC alum about the utilization of Homeland Security grants for disaster response.  You can claim that my peers’ experiences are particular to the Public Policy degree, but I would invite MBAs, engineers, and poets to share how service alumni enriched their academic program.

More and more colleges and graduate schools are looking to match the Education Award in order to attract applicants with service history. Look for these opportunities and other service programs at universities.  You will not regret it.

Listen to our September Professional Development webinar on Choosing a Grad School Concentration.

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