Overview of Year of Service/Gap Year Opportunies

One-two year volunteer and community service programs/positions have become an increasingly popular option for Penn students.  These opportunities typically include work in the U.S. or abroad in a wide variety of fields (teaching, advocacy, community development, health care, immigrant services, social work, environment, etc.).  Programs frequently emphasize philosophies of service to others, peace and justice, enhancing international relationships, and/or "the road less traveled."  Many programs also feature a training program prior to the work period, living in acommunity (or on one's own), practicing a simple lifestyle, and deferment of student loans.  

Click here for resources for finding Year(s) of Service/ Gap Year Opportunities

Reasons to Consider Volunteer and Community Service Positions

Students participate in volunteer and community service programs for a variety of reasons.  Some of the more common reasons include one or more of the following:

  • Desire to "give back" or be of service to communities in need
  • Seeking immersion in a new culture (ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically)
  • Learning new ways of being in the world "living simply" & "community orientation"
  • Seeing the world from the perspective of the population with whom one works
  • Acquiring professional skills in a challenging work environment
  • Doing work one finds especially meaningful, interesting, and/or "different" before career path employment or graduate school

Reasons for *Not* Selecting this Type of Work

The decision to participate in a volunteer program represents a serious commitment.  The following reasons -- although they represent legitimate feelings as graduation looms on the horizon -- are not sufficient in most cases for participation in these types of programs.  This caveat draws on previous negative experiences and is intended to help you make a decision that is truly valuable for you as well as beneficial for the populations with whom you would work.

  • Looking only for something to look good on one's resume
  • An easy and cheap way to live in NYC, San Francisco, Chile, etc. for a year or two
  • Can't think of anything else to do, so why not?
  • Well-intended but ultimately unhelpful peer pressure of altruistic friends

Selecting a Program

Click here for links that will connect you to hundreds -- if not thousands -- of positions in a wide variety of fields.  The goal is to narrow your search, select programs that interest you, and evaluate.

Consult the Idealist International Volunteerism Resource Guide for information on volunteering in a foreign country.

Reflection and Discernment

Take some time to respond to the following questions as you begin your search for a program.  Knowing your own values, interests, skills, and needs is an important first step in finding a program that will be a good match for you. 

  • What draws you to volunteer or community service work?
  • What do you hope to gain from such an experience?
  • What do you hope to contribute to the community with whom you work?
  • How do you see the experience fitting in with who you are and who you hope to become?

Factors to Consider / Criteria for Selecting Programs

The following list contains factors that you should consider at the beginning of your program search.  Knowing what you are looking for in terms of the following program features can be a big help in narrowing your search down to a manageable number of programs. 

  • Time commitment (How much time are you able to commit? Would you prefer a program that is renewable after an initial commitment?
  • Financial situation (Some programs charge fees, some meet basic needs and provide health insurance; some include benefits and a salary.  What are your financial needs and expectations?  Are you looking for a program with loan deferral?)
  • Job / career interests (What kind of work would you like to do? How might this work connect with future career goals?)
  • Location (urban, rural, international)
  • Housing situation (Would you prefer to live in a community of fellow volunteers, with a family, on your own?)
  • Support network (In the challenging work you are likely to encounter, you may need both institutional and personal support.  How does a given program provide support both formally and informally?)
  • Program stability and reputation (How important is it to you that the organization sponsoring your program is large, well-established, and continuing indefinitely?)
  • Connection to religious / spiritual traditions (Some programs are sponsored by faith communities and incorporate spirituality or religious features into the program.  Do you prefer to work in a program with a spiritual or religious foundation or component or *not*? To what degree would you be comfortable sharing your beliefs and/or spiritual perspectives with others?)

Designing Your Own Program

Some students may be interested in working on a project or with a population of special interest to them.  Designing your own program is certainly an option if you have sufficient time for planning and implementation as well as the creativity and dedication required to see a project through from start to finish.  By developing a clearly defined project, a funding source, and a network of support (personal as well as institutional), you may have the unique opportunity to dedicate a year or more of your time to a personally-selected project of your own design. 

Evaluating Programs

It is important for you to research and evaluate potential programs before deciding and as you narrow down your selections:  

  • Contact the organization, send away for materials and an application, speak with someone who represents the program.  Do they sound organized, professional, trustworthy, interested in your interests? Does the program provide what you are looking for? What is the quality level of their correspondence with you?
  • Interview current participants as well as former volunteers at least 3 or 4. Ask them about their work, their support network, compensation, difficulties and frustrations, highlights:

Sample Questions

  • Describe the type of person who flourishes in this program.
  • What is a typical day like for you?
  • What skills have you acquired in this work?
  • How is the program / volunteer position viewed among the population served?
  • What role does religion play (if at all) in the program or the work?
  • Describe your fellow volunteers' background.
  • What do volunteers typically do after completing the program?
  • What kind of personal and institutional support does the program provide?
  • What portion of the volunteers are single, married, etc?
  • What are the program's greatest strengths and weaknesses? 
  • What is the compensation?
  • How good is the health insurance (if provided)?
  • What makes for a strong applicant?
  • What can I do to prepare beforehand?  

Visit the program / community / sample work site if possible.

Connecting to Future Plans

Consider ways your volunteer experience might connect with future plans.  You could select a program that prepares you for subsequent work in the same or a similar field (e.g. a teaching position for an aspiring teacher).  You might also consider selecting a position quite unrelated to your intended career field, especially if the field will allow little flexibility later on for such opportunities.  For instance, future physicians, who will be spending the next 7 to 10+ years in medical training, might use this opportunity to do something you love, e.g. be a music instructor, art teacher, or environmental advocate.  Keep in mind that there are many paths to a given career as well as many ways that various volunteer positions can assist you in achieving your career goals.  The best way to figure out how a potential volunteer program would complement a given career path is to consult professionals already working in that field for advice and guidance. 

Those interested in pursuing law school or medical school can be confident that their applications will be strengthened by volunteer work and may select from a wide range of programs.  Law school and medical school admissions committees look favorably on volunteer work and are often delighted when an applicant has branched out into a field other than law or medicine.   

Students interested in professional graduate programs (social work, policy, religious studies, public health, business, etc.) will be well-served by choosing a volunteer program that connects in a logical way with their selected profession.  Often this connection takes the form of working "in the trenches" on the problems and issues the professional or graduate student will later spend his/her time addressing in school and in one's career.  For instance, an aspiring policy analyst interested in education policy who spends a year working with homeless inner city youth or teaching in a rural under-funded school will gain exceptional insight into factors affecting students.   

Future graduate students in the humanities or social sciences can likewise make a connection between their work as a volunteer and their aspirations in academia, but should consult with professionals in their chosen field to consider ways to select a volunteer program wisely and demonstrate a continuing interest in academic work throughout their term of service.  Teaching experiences are usually valued by admissions committees because you will be training for upper level teaching in Ph.D. programs.   

For those aspiring to graduate studies in the sciences or economics, making the link between your chosen academic field and a term of volunteer service will be more difficult, though not impossible.  Focus on work with a very close connection to your field.  Before making any commitments to a volunteer program, make sure you consult with advisors in your area of interest, as well as directors of graduate programs, to discuss how your application for graduate studies will be influenced by a year or two of volunteer work. 

Graduates hoping to seek full time employment following a term of volunteer service will be well-served by thinking about future goals and selecting a program that will complement these plans.  Skills developed in volunteer service can prepare you well for a variety of fields.  Career Services counselors will be happy to assist you in selecting a program that fits well with your future plans. 

If you are considering a volunteer or community service program, and are (or because you are) undecided about your career path, keep in mind that a long-term volunteer/service experience may be very helpful in highlighting your interests, skills, and vocational preferences.  Volunteer programs can assist you in making a well-planned next step by familiarizing you with one or more job fields. 

Making the Most of Your Program

  • Keep in touch with your support network from Penn and friends doing similar work.  Keep family and friends informed about the nature and purpose of your position so they can be advocates for your work.
  • Keep an open mind and expect the unexpected you most likely will be challenged and stretched. Use these as opportunities to learn more about yourself and to see the world in an entirely new way.
  • Try to learn as much as possible about the population with whom you work culture, history, geography, customs, language, beliefs. 
  • Take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills and keep a record of what you've accomplished and learned.  This can be very helpful in the future as you consider grad school and/or other employment positions.