Me Generation Actually the Us Generation

Although tough times certainly contribute, there are hints the younger generation's commitment to public service is genuine.
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Although tough times certainly contribute, there are hints the younger generation's commitment to public service is genuine.

They've been called the "me generation," and America's "trophy kids." Characterized by a cocktail of competitive schooling and an ailing economy, the millennial generation is entering the workforce heralded by claims that for what they lack in empathy, they make up with longer resumes and bigger demands. Why, then, are this year's graduates choosing to work with volunteer programs and nonprofits in greater numbers than ever before?

Over the past year, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Teach for America have all experienced dramatic increases in applications from new graduates. And with job security on most college seniors' minds, it should come as no surprise that what these organizations offer is enticing: a unique blend of working for the social good and enjoying a set number of years in a stable job.

The Peace Corps has long been a favorite choice of globally minded college grads, and schools of all sizes have a consistent history of sending up to 100 students to the corps each year. Last year, however, the trend took a significant upward turn: In 2009, the Peace Corps had 15,386 applicants, the largest number since they started electronically recording applications in 1998. The number represented an 18 percent increase in applications from the previous year, and with 89 percent of Peace Corps members holding at least an undergraduate degree — and some colleges sending up to 4 percent of their graduating classes — college graduates constitute the majority of those who take up the Corps on its offer of a two-year commitment.

When it comes to paid volunteer work, however, the Peace Corps is no longer the only popular option. Recent grad Nicole Brown, who currently works for AmeriCorps VISTA, told a conference reviewing a Heartland Monitor Poll on Millenials, "I looked into doing Peace Corps, and that's what led me to AmeriCorps." AmeriCorps received an impressive 250,000 applications last year — a whopping two-and-a-half times the amount it received in 2008.

It's Teach for America, however, that has changed the way students approach jobs as opportunities to give back. With more than 8,200 corps members set to teach in 39 regions this fall, Teach for America is bigger than ever, and with an acceptance rate of just 12 percent, it rivals some of the best universities in the country in terms of selectivity.

The 46,000 applications received this year broke records, and at more than 120 schools, more than 5 percent of the senior class applied (this jumped to 12 percent at Ivy League schools). With the largest incoming corps in its 20-year history, Teach for America is making American classrooms where college seniors want to be.

But with the economy on the skids, are these public-service options just a convenient resting place before things pick up?

On the College Senior Survey, the highest rated factor in seniors' career path considerations was — unsurprisingly — having a "stable, secure future." But while working for a nonprofit may have traditionally been an unstable career choice, organizations like Teach for America and the Peace Corps offer both the chance to help others and the promise of a stable job - with benefits.

Peace Corps and AmeriCorps members with federal student loans are eligible for loan forbearance, and as a member of AmeriCorps, Teach for America pays for all interest accrued on corps members' college loans. Peace Corps volunteers receive pay, living expenses and transition money, while Teach for America members receive the same salaries as all beginning teachers, with income ranging from $30,000 to $51,000.

Paul Miller, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Region of Teach for America, said the nonprofits' growth is "a trend that's continued from before economic dislocations ... there's a drive and commitment of this generation to make a difference." (In his work looking at cycles of American history, recently profiled by Miller-McCune's Ben Preston, Neil Howe suggests the millennials are right on schedule: Born as overprotected children, they are given to cohesive teamwork and trust in authority as they come of age, becoming the organized fighters during a crisis and the builders of institutions afterward.)

Elliot Epstein, a former corps teacher who now works as recruitment director for Teach for America in New York, agrees. Says Epstein, "While I think the economy plays a role in any decision around employment, I truly believe that the primary motivator for people to join the corps is a sincere desire to close the achievement gap and an increasing recognition that corps members are able to do that."

According to the College Senior Survey, a report generated each year by the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles, the end of this decade has seen a high level of student desire to affect social change, as well as a growing awareness of social problems in the United States and abroad.

In the 2008-09 survey of graduating seniors, 77 percent rated "helping others who are in difficulty" as "essential" or "very important," a number that came in above "being very well off financially" at 60.8 percent. When asked to describe their "understanding of social problems facing our nation," 86 percent deemed their understanding "much stronger" or "stronger" than when they entered college; the same terms were chosen by 82.4 percent for "understanding of global issues." Furthermore, 46.2 percent said "working for social change" was "essential" or "very important" when thinking about their career path after college.

LeAnn Chavez, a new Teach for America member who graduated from Columbia University this May, says her decision to teach came in part from personal experience. "Growing up in a low-income community and in a family where higher education was nonexistent, I have been amazed at what education can do for and to a person," Chavez says.

"I know that I'm not the perfect teacher or the perfect mentor, but I am so willing to help those who, like me in high school, have no hope for a bright future."

In an economic climate where permanent positions are scarce and layoffs are frequent, a two-year commitment to teaching or working abroad has shifted from a potentially risky detour to a comfortably long time to hold a job. Nonprofits like Teach for America have both tapped into students' desire to give back and offered them the one thing they want the most: short-term job security.

However large a role the economy has played in the surge of applications to work with volunteer organizations and nonprofits, there is no denying that the "trophy kids" are starting to show that they want to give back - and that they're thankful for what they have.

Says Chavez, "My experience at Columbia, at college, is what I hope many more children can experience. I've met such amazing people, learned so much ... and have just experienced great things that have changed my perception of the world."