In the beginning of Katherine Quinn’s sophomore year at Boston College she made a decision that changed the way her next three years would unfold: She started volunteering at Perkins School for the Blind in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts. Every week she spent four hours in the pool and gym program with kids who have severe disabilities. She loved the work so much that during her junior year she ran the Perkins volunteer program, handling logistics and leading weekly reflection sessions for three dozen Boston College students who volunteered there. During Quinn’s senior year she was named president of 4Boston, the umbrella organization that places nearly 500 students at 34 volunteer sites—including Perkins—to serve four hours a week and meet in small groups for an hour of reflection.
After her college volunteer experience, it seemed that Quinn’s postgraduation path was practically preordained. “Almost everyone who was president of 4Boston went into postgrad service,” says Quinn, who graduated last May with majors in biology and theology. She first considered doing a year of service when she was a sophomore. By the beginning of her senior year she threw herself into the discernment process: attending postgrad service fairs and talking with friends and acquaintances who had done a volunteer year.
Somewhere near the midpoint of her senior year, she knew she wanted to work in healthcare and stay in Boston—and she’d decided not to apply to a service program. She loved volunteering and learned a lot, but she was ready for something different. “I really wanted to use my skills and be self-sufficient,” she says.
Quinn has plenty of company these days. While Catholic colleges and universities regularly have graduates who sign on with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Mercy Volunteer Corps, Rostro de Cristo, Dominican Volunteers USA, and more than 100 other long-term faith-based volunteer programs, the number of recent grads who are choosing to do a year (or more) of volunteer service has dwindled in recent years. People who work with the programs and prospective volunteers have reason to believe, however, that even though the number of long-term volunteers are down, service has not necessarily fallen out of favor.
High interest, low applications
At Creighton University, Jeff Peak, assistant director of the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice, advises students who are considering a year of service after graduation. Every year he meets with a handful of students who are sure they want to volunteer. “They have a plan, and you don’t see them waver,” he says of these students. But he more often meets with students who are considering multiple options: postgrad volunteer programs, full-time employment, and graduate school.
If this year is on track with recent years, Peak expects around 30 of Creighton’s 2017 graduates to do a year of service with a faith-based volunteer program. But the strong job market in the past few years may mean that there will be fewer among the volunteer ranks this year.
That’s in stark contrast to the numbers eight years ago. Peak was just out of college himself, a volunteer with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Amate House, when the Great Recession started. He ran an after-school program for at-risk youth in the city’s McKinley Park neighborhood and was one of 31 volunteers living in three houses. As the economy floundered and the next crop of graduating seniors began to recognize that they had few options for full-time employment, applications rolled in. Peak remembers the many prospective volunteers who visited his house, which also housed the Amate House offices, so they could interview for one of the coveted slots for the following year.
“When the job market was particularly bad we had a much higher application rate, and we were taking more volunteers,” says Deirdre Kleist, Amate House’s program and recruitment coordinator. “Interest still remains high—a lot of people are exploring the idea of a service year. But in the end, when it comes time to commit, numbers are in a bit of a decline.” Indeed, last year Amate House and the Augustinian Volunteers each closed a house in Chicago due to fewer volunteers.
That’s a familiar dynamic, according to the Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN), a Maryland-based membership organization for Christian volunteer and mission programs. Even as CVN has seen an uptick in interest on their website and an increase in the number of people completing volunteer profiles, more than half of its member organizations report that they did not meet their recruitment goals in 2015. Programs weren’t disastrously under their targets—74 percent of organizations only missed their goal by five or fewer volunteers. But CVN has also seen a decline in the number of its membership organizations since 2013, when it had 223 members. Now it has 180. However, there’s typically an ebb and flow to membership—the current number is about the same as it was in 2009.
Kleist sees a silver lining to the smaller numbers. “In choosing to scale back a bit, we are able to focus on giving a smaller number of volunteers a richer experience,” she says.
Sarah Hammel, CVN’s membership coordinator, says its member organizations strive to focus on their mission, and they tend not to be overly troubled with trends. “Volunteer organizations are interested in meeting their goals for recruitment, but it’s never just about the numbers. They want to make sure they get the right people who have a heart for service. In particular, faith-based service organizations have a genuine interest in the individual volunteer and the personal journey that each volunteer will undergo in their year of service,” she says.
Altering recruitment strategies
Recruitment remains a crucial part of the process—and it’s a part that’s seen significant changes in recent years. “There’s simply more information out there for people interested in volunteering than there was 10 years ago,” says Joanna Bowen, director of the Augustinian Volunteers (AV). Ten years ago, social media was barely on the radar of most volunteer programs; now it’s an essential tool for programs in their recruitment efforts. “We use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to show what the volunteer experience is like,” says Bowen. Applicants tell her that the photos the AV’s post give them a more concrete understanding of what the year is like. “They appreciate knowing that this is what their house might look like, or this is what they might do at their placement,” she says.
Even with the rise of social media, traditional forms of recruitment haven’t disappeared. Programs ask their alumni to encourage younger friends or family members to consider a service year. Face-to-face meetings between recruiters, prospective volunteers, and even university personnel are particularly important, says Hammel. Bowen estimates that a third of this year’s AV’s joined because of personal connections to a former AV. Program reps still travel to career fairs and postgraduate service fairs on college campuses to meet with potential volunteers.
Universities often coordinate with each other—for example, the University of Dayton schedules its fair the same week as Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, and John Carroll University in Cleveland, so programs can make the most of their limited travel budgets.
Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest has long recruited from Jesuit colleges and universities, but in recent years it has started to get in touch with potential volunteers at public universities and other schools. It’s also reaching out to new audiences in familiar places. “We’re working to connect with multicultural offices, various campus affinity groups, offices that support first-generation college students. We’re asking how we can reach more students than the ones in campus ministry, the volunteer office, and the theology and social work departments,” says Christie Costello, recruitment and marketing manager for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.
The organization is also looking beyond college campuses. After recognizing the potential for older volunteers who might be interested in a service experience that emphasizes the organization’s core values but isn’t a full-time, live-in experience, JVC Northwest established JV EnCorps five years ago. The program, now in four cities, attracts volunteers over the age of 50 who serve part-time, meet in community, and explore the values of simple living, spirituality, and social and ecological justice.
Similarly, CVN is expanding its outreach efforts. While the majority of long-term volunteers who participate in CVN member programs are young and white, the organization is working to reach people of different ages, backgrounds, and skills. At its 2016 membership meeting last October, it announced plans to do more outreach at parishes and to target at least 20 percent of its recruitment visits to diverse populations, reaching out to Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities.
Choosing the right path
When Catholic Volunteer Network attends recruiting events, it distributes print copies of RESPONSE, the directory of faith-based volunteer opportunities, and points people to the searchable database of volunteer programs on its website. Prospective volunteers can pull up the site right there on their phone.
This flood of information, of course, is part of the reason for the odd pairing of increased interest in long-term service and decreased commitment to it. “Students I work with are considering a lot of options as they get ready to graduate,” says Nick Cardilino, director of the University of Dayton’s Center for Social Concern. “They’re applying to grad schools, jobs, and postgrad volunteer programs. A few are considering religious life or the priesthood. They’re doing it all. Then they start getting these acceptances, and they have to decide.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for discernment, Cardilino says. His students have to take into account personal preferences, financial constraints, family expec-tations—and that’s just for starters. “The most common thing I hear is, ‘I applied for two volunteer programs and these three social work jobs, and I think I’m going to take this social work job. . . . I can still do good and make a difference in people’s lives and sort of get started on real life.’ Sometimes they apologize to me. I have to tell them, ‘Don’t apologize! You’re doing a great job. Pay attention to your vocation and where you’re feeling called,’ ” he says.
Even students who are devoted to community service throughout their college years sometimes pass on the postgrad option. “Doing full-time service is not necessarily the right choice for everyone,” says Kate Daly, associate director of Boston College’s Volunteer and Service Learning Center. Last year Daly worked with Tom King, assistant director of student engagement at the Center for Service and Action at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), to conduct an informal survey on the topic of full-time service. They gathered responses from 310 alumni of Boston College, LMU, Saint Joseph’s University, and Stonehill College. They found that 240 had considered at some point during their college years the possibility of doing full-time service after graduation. Of that group, just 77 went ahead with it. The remaining 163 gave their reasons for opting out of full-time postgrad service. The vast majority, 71 percent, said they were offered a job. Nearly 63 percent said they decided full-time service wasn’t right for them. Thirty-six percent said they felt they could not afford the expenses attached to full-time service, such as transportation or phone bills. Thirty-two percent said that they had student loan issues, and 24 percent said they felt external pressures to pursue a generally more acceptable path. Twenty percent said they were accepted to graduate school, and another 20 percent said they were pursuing service goals through social entrepreneurship opportunities.
Katherine Quinn, the Boston College graduate, fits into that latter category. On a lark, she took a class on social entrepreneurship her junior year, and it opened her eyes to possibilities beyond a year-long volunteer service program. She’s now working in sales at 2020 On-Site Optometry, a mobile vision center start-up in Boston. The company met all of the points on her checklist—a healthcare company in Boston where she could use her skills and be self-sufficient. “Even though I’m not doing a year of service, I’m still finding ways to figure service into my life,” she says. “The biggest lessons I learned from my work with 4Boston are that so much of service is accompaniment—being with others and listening to them when they’re worrying about something—and figuring out logistics. Those have been things I’ve carried into my job.”
Peak says he sees similar conclusions made by students who go on Creighton’s service and justice trips. While there are always some students who change their life plans because of the experience, there are more who have their plans confirmed and clarified. “We have a lot of pre-health students, and a number of them gain a deeper understanding of why they want to go into the field—it’s no longer just because their parents want them to be a doctor, for instance, or because they want to make a lot of money. Maybe they have a new idea of what type of medicine they want to practice,” he says. He says it’s the same with pre-law and business students. “Many decide that even if they’re not doing a year-long volunteer program after graduation, they still want to keep service a part of their life in some way,” he says.
Other opportunities, other challenges
Of course, students don’t make the decision to volunteer by themselves. About two years ago, the staff at Amate House saw the need to develop resources to help applicants talk with their parents about the discernment process. “Too often we’d hear, ‘I can’t tell my parents,’ ” says Kleist. “We wanted to help them to explain the positives: that it’s possible to defer some student loans, that volunteering does look good on resumes, and that we always have people who stay on as full-time employees at their placements after they finish their volunteer service.”
Another concern weighing on many new college grads is the feeling that they need more education. “I’m hearing this more and more from students,” says Peak. “There’s a perception that a graduate degree will make them more marketable.” That has certainly driven the growth of the University Consortium for Catholic Education’s (UCCE) teacher education programs (see sidebar). Peak sees the largest number of Creighton grads who go on to full-time service choose the university’s Magis Catholic Teacher Corps. Magis participants work toward a master’s degree during their service term, but most of their classmates who opt for graduate school can anticipate more student debt.
Even without grad school, Millennials are already shouldering significant educational debt. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have outstanding student loans. Twenty years ago, only half of recent graduates did. The average amount of student loan debt is higher, too: $27,000 for today’s recent grads, compared to $15,000 two decades ago. “The vast majority of applicants indicate that student loans are a significant concern for them,” says JVC Northwest’s Costello. “More people are asking about the AmeriCorps Education Award. It seems to be a bigger factor for applicants now than it was in previous years.”
For those who do decide to do a year (or more) of service, it can come down to one fact that outweighs the challenges and outshines the other options. Another recent Boston College grad, Dani Xiong, spent last year sending out job applications at the same time she interviewed with JVC Northwest. She was still waiting to hear back about several jobs when she needed to decide about taking a JV position in Anchorage. “Ultimately—and I had this same thought the entire year—I knew that if I accepted a job offer, I would go to work every day and wonder what it would’ve been like to do a service year, and that wouldn’t be productive for me or for the company,” she says. So Xiong, a marketing and information systems major, made her way to Anchorage last August to spend the year living with six other volunteers and working at a housing facility for individuals who have a history of homelessness and alcoholism. “Instead of leaving myself with the coulda-woulda-shouldas, I’m glad I did it,” she says.
This article also appears in the April 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 4, pages 26–31).
Image: Courtesy of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest