You just graduated from college and want to change the world—now what?
A passion for adventure and a will to help others led Csilla Aglaure-Szekelyhidi to find her calling through a post-graduate service year
Growing up in a single-parent home, my mother’s primary focus was to make sure we had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and that my sister and I didn’t manage to kill each other. As a mediocre student, I floated through most of my academic career, never feeling like I’d found my place. I was into sports and music, but never good enough to make a career of it. My grades were only OK, and so scholarships weren’t an option to pay for school. I lived in a constant state of limbo.
When I graduated high school, a series of life events brought me through an uphill battle of multiple college transfers, degree switches, and even taking time off just to figure out what I was doing. To put it simply, I was lost. In my head, I had these grandiose ideas of making an impact. I wanted to save the world—without a college degree or life experience. I was 18 and wanted to help, but didn’t know how to get from where I was, to where, and who I wanted to be.
I was 18 and wanted to help, but didn’t know how to get from where I was, to where, and who I wanted to be.
When college graduation finally rolled around I was terrified. I had this cool sounding degree, but no idea how to use it or where it would take me. What did it mean to be in the “real world”? By some stroke of luck, I had a friend who told me about a program called AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps)—a service year. I’d never heard of anything like it before, but it was a wild mix of adventure, hard work, and travel.
So, on a whim I applied. It was one of the hardest years of my life and there were moments when I questioned what I was doing. I was on a team of six strangers, traveling across the U.S. responding to natural disasters and living in towns that barely showed up on a map. The work was challenging and I didn’t always see an immediate result. As a young person, that was hard to process. I so often see that my generation, Millennials, want instant results. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and rebuilding these communities was going to take time too. This was the first lesson I learned during my service year: patience.
The second lesson: understanding the diversity in my own country. Being a Chicagoan, I had a rude awakening when I discovered that there’s more to the Midwest than just living in the city. It’s not just a region of sameness, but a mixture of cultures that goes deeper than a lot of corn fields and cows.
The third lesson, and maybe the most important for me, was that I was making a difference, even if I couldn’t see it. Working at a women’s shelter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was outside taking a break when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to a woman who promptly said, “Thank you for your service.” I was completely taken aback. I had no clue who she was. She didn’t live at the shelter and I had never worked with her before, but in that moment, I realized she didn’t know me either but recognized my uniform. She wasn’t thanking me for the work I was doing, but for the work my fellow NCCC service men and women had done before me. And that was when I stopped doubting my work and knew a service year makes a difference—now, tomorrow, and for years down the road.
Since then, I’ve worked diligently to ensure that young people do not feel like they are floating through life without a purpose. I work as a College Organizing Manager with Service Year Alliance, in Washington, D.C. Our goal is to make a year of service a common opportunity for all young adults. We’re bringing awareness and education to students across the U.S. through service year programs like that of AmeriCorps NCCC. Doing a year of service changed my life. Now, I work with young people every day to ensure that luck has nothing to do with finding your passion and giving back to your country.