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Study commissioned by Prudential’s Spirit of Community program shows how service prepares young people for the future of work.

By Keli Tianga

October 21, 2020

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 who sometimes encountered stereotyped assumptions about his life, Harris had a special understanding of bridging difference, and felt letter writing could help young people of different backgrounds better understand one another. “Friendship Sees No Color” 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 and then serve in the U.S. Army. He is now a professor of American Politics at West Point, where he shares with his students many of the lessons of leadership he learned from creating and growing his pen pal program. Harris credits his experience with teaching him skills he could only learn by doing, including speaking with candor about difficult subjects.

Building skills by building communities

The skills young people develop when they engage with the world through service is the focus of “Cultivating Key Capabilities through Volunteer Service,” a report commissioned by Prudential in commemoration of the Spirit of Community program’s 25th anniversary.

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 are 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 two of the other 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 attributes his volunteerism as a teenager to 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.”

To read the full report, click here.

Applications for the 2020 Spirit of Community Awards are open now through November 10.


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