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For students, skills learned through volunteering are key to future success

As a high schooler in California in the 1990s, Brian Harris began an international pen pal program called “Friendship Sees No Color.” As a person of mixed race, he sometimes encountered stereotyped assumptions about his life; Harris had a special understanding of bridging differences, and felt letter writing could help people of different backgrounds better understand one another. His pen pal program grew to involve more than 20,000 people.

Harris’s courage in speaking out about race on the national stage, and his vision for cultivating more inclusive communities led to his selection in 1997 as an honoree in Prudential’s Spirit of Community Awards program – and a foreshadowing of the success that would follow.

Harris went on to graduate from Stanford University, serve in the U.S. Army, and today is a professor of American Politics at West Point, where he shares with his students many of the lessons of leadership he learned from his pen pal program. He credits his experience creating and growing “Friendship Sees No Color” with teaching him skills he could only learn by doing, including speaking with candor about difficult subjects.

Building skills by building communities

The skills students develop when they engage with the world through service is the focus of “Cultivating Key Capabilities through Volunteer Service,” a report commissioned by Prudential to commemorate the Prudential Spirit of Community Award’s 25th anniversary. The youth recognition program—America’s largest based exclusively on volunteer service—is sponsored by Prudential in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Drawing from interviews with honorees dating back to the program’s founding in 1995, the report underscores how service develops not only traditional leadership skills, but also perspective and a sense of purpose—emotional intelligence characteristics that are increasingly critical for adapting to the evolving needs of customers and communities in a 21st century economy.

According to the report, the top five attributes program alumni found to be outcomes of their volunteer service include leadership, communication skills, personal management, empathy for others’ experiences and self-direction.

“At the very heart of ‘the future of work’ is the ability to be nimble, adaptable, and in tune with customer expectations,” said Rob Falzon, vice chair, Prudential.  “When students solve for a community need, they are using their own initiative and innovation to make lives better.  This demonstrates a level of future-readiness that will yield a more enriching and meaningful experience—not only in business, but in all their life endeavors.”

The report asserts that the future of work will require leaders to operate with a heightened sense of self-awareness and humility, a willingness to serve as advocates and a commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation. These are a few of the alumni the report profiles as examples of how those skills are cultivated by childhood volunteering:

Taylor Crosby of Mississippi was only 5 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit. He worked alongside family members to collect and deliver food, water and supplies to survivors. Named an honoree in 2005, Crosby became a registered nurse and credits his volunteerism as a teenager with his decision to become a health care professional.

Michaella Gallina of Colorado, a 2001 honoree, created a program that provided horseback riding experiences for disabled and terminally ill children. Today Gallina is a board member of the Temple Grandin Equine Center at Colorado State University, a leader in equine-assisted activities and therapies for people with physical, developmental and emotional challenges.

“Volunteering gives students unparalleled real-world opportunities to learn leadership, adaptability and working effectively with people very different from themselves,” said Lata Reddy, senior vice president, Inclusive Solutions, Prudential. “For any institution, building pathways to meaningful student service opportunities is a good thing to do. And this study proves it’s also a critical investment in preparing young people for the future of work.”

- Keli Tianga