The Service Gap Year at Mid-Career

The New York Times highlights stories of people who take a year to do something outside the norm for their careers.

Traditionally, the gap year is a break from academia for recent high school grads, to get a year of work or service experience before going onto college. Sometimes kids go overseas for the year. Countless structured opportunities exist; or they can cobble together something on their own.

But what about gap years for older adults? As the NYT article suggests, taking an unpaid leave from a job at mid-career can have some unexpected benefits; it also outlines some of the financial considerations.

Here are some service opportunities that include professionals as corps members or fellows:

AmeriCorps*VISTA recruits college grads, including people at mid-career, to work in community-based organizations, agencies, and schools to end poverty. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) participants build the capacity of their organizations. Read more on this blog post. Many other domestic service programs are open to people of all ages; check out the list of Corps and Coalitions on the right-hand sidebar.

Atlas Corps — also known as a two-way Peace Corps — brings rising professionals from NGOs in the Global South to the United States to serve for a year; U.S. professionals find opportunities to serve at NGOs in Colombia, India, and soon, elsewhere. Fellows must have 3-8 years of experience in the citizen sector of their home country — to check your own eligibility, check out this list of questions.

Peace Corps has a reputation for taking idealistic 21 year olds abroad to serve in mud huts, but consider the facts: the average age of Volunteers is 27, and five percent of Volunteers are over age 50! Many projects require experience, and the mud hut life is not universal. For mid-career professionals with children, note that you can’t take them with you, so best wait till they have flown the coop. Also Peace Corps assignments are two years long.

U.N. Volunteers mobilizes volunteers and integrates them into development projects in their home countries and abroad. The minimum age of a U.N. Volunteer is 26, while the average age is 37 with five to seven years of work experience. (I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article because the official site won’t open for me.)

Volunteers for Prosperity is a U.S. agency that invites “highly-skilled American professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, economists, computer specialists, financial sector professionals, business executives and others with specialized technical expertise and significant practical experience” to volunteer with a long list of VfP partner agencies.

VSO Canada is an international development agency that sends skilled Canadian and U.S. professionals abroad for long-term volunteer assignments that last between seven months and two years. Highly experienced professionals can enlist in shorter-term stints (3-6 months). VSO Canada is now known as CUSO-VSO.

Mid-career professionals must take into account mortgage and car payments, children, and other considerations that young adults on a gap year simply don’t have. If you can afford a year off, the rewards can reverberate throughout the rest of your career through a refreshed perspective, more objective decision-making, and new networks.

Do you know of other service programs that recruit professionals? I’d love to hear about them!

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