June 17, 2014
Giving Back After Graduation
Next Generation of Service (NGS) is an organization that helps to connect recent college graduates with long-term service opportunities. Participating students receive individualized mentoring and support while searching for, applying to, and navigating positions at nonprofits and service organizations. We recently spoke with NGS founder and CEE alumnus Anna Lenhart (BS ‘11) to find out more about how NGS works and what it can offer to graduating students.
Why did you decide to found Next Generation of Service? What inspired you and how did you come up with the idea?
Anna: Between my Junior and Senior years at CMU, I took a year-long leave of absence to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Shakti Rising, a women's empowerment program in San Diego, CA. The experience helped me to integrate the systemic problem solving approach and technological applications I learned at CMU with real-world issues.
When I returned to campus, I noticed that some of my peers were struggling to figure out how they could use their degree to make a difference. I found that students at CMU and at other universities had no idea that there are opportunities to travel and work on issues they care about as a stipend volunteer. I thought a great way to get the word out about national (and International) service programs would be to give students access to peer mentors who have participated in such programs and can speak honestly about their impact.
What do you hope that students will get out of working with your organization?
Anna: First, NGS mentors try to ease students’ anxiety about "finding the perfect job" and remind them that they are not the only ones struggling with this decision. Second, we want students to truly consider doing a year of service after they graduate the same way they consider a corporate job and graduate school. Lastly, we want to give students support while they complete applications and navigate the logistics and challenges that accompany a long-term service program—like discussing the decision with parents and living on a stipend.
How can working in a public service position benefit students and our society as a whole?
Anna: Public service is really a win-win. The majority of non-profits are under funded and understaffed, so a highly competent volunteer can fill the roll of a staff and amplify the organization’s mission. Students receive great experience in a wide range of positions, which is exciting for those who desire to be entrepreneurial. Long-term service positions also give them a better understanding of their skill sets, what they like to do, and of a social issue at a deeper level. Students will take this empathy and civic engagement with them into whatever job they have next.
How do you select the mentors that students are paired with? Why is it important for students to have a mentor?
Anna: We recruit mentors from networks of National Service alumni (AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, etc.) and train them in basic coaching techniques to help young people discover what they are being called to do. When a student signs up for our program, they are matched with a mentor that has similar interests to them. Most students have to use the Internet to explore service options, which can be an overwhelming and lonely process, and it is helpful to have a mentor to support you as you sift through the opportunities.
How do you think your CEE Bachelor's degree prepared you for your experiences after graduation and for your new role as founder of this organization?
Anna: First, I cannot overemphasize the importance of systematic thinking and problem solving in the social sector—skills that are at the core of an engineering education. More specifically, CEE at CMU allowed me to have several leadership opportunities in class projects, independent research projects, and within student organizations. I learned how to take initiative, ask for help, and be an empowering rather than managerial leader.
Do you have any advice for students who are graduating and want to pursue a nontraditional path?
Anna: Sign up for a guidance session with an NGS Mentor! Also be sure to schedule some quiet time with yourself to really think about what would be the best for you. Few people are talking about nontraditional career paths (for now), so you have to really listen to yourself, even above the advice you get from parents and mentors.