Filling the Gap
Public Service Fellows bridge volunteerism and academics
by Michelle Simmons
October 13, 2010
Public Service Fellows Coral Pistilli ’14 and Will Nelligan ’14 took a year between high school and college to tackle some nonacademic challenges and ended up learning much more than they anticipated.
William Nelligan ’14 already has met two presidents—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—but his proudest moment was catching a glimpse of his hero, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), during a tour of the Longworth House Office Building at the United States Capitol complex.
“I barreled up the stairs after him. When I caught up with him, I was shaking in my shoes,” Nelligan recalls. “This is a man from a family that has encapsulated almost three-quarters of the 20th century. I didn’t know what to do, so I hugged him.”
Nelligan, then a high-school junior, also laid the groundwork that day for an internship with Kennedy’s office. Although the opportunity never materialized because of the senator’s illness, Nelligan decided to follow Kennedy’s spirit of service and take a year between high-school graduation and college to tackle some tough issues in Nelligan’s home state of Maine and around New England.
That year included a host of projects, such as helping the Somali Youth Organization of Maine develop plans for a community center, advising the city of Portland on the creation of a Youth Advisory Council, working with the Governor’s Council on Poverty and Economic Security and coordinating the Council of State Governments’ 2010 Eastern Regional Conference. Nelligan also worked on the Maine Democratic Convention and helped organize New England small-business owners around federal energy-reform legislation.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to solving big problems. It’s easy for people to say, ‘I’m drawn to service.’ I am, but for me it’s also about how these challenges can be solved,” he says, pointing to Kennedy as a model. “He made tangible changes. He wasn’t up in the sky—all talk, talk, talk. But he also never compromised his ideals.”
Nelligan is one of Dickinson’s first two recipients of its Public Service Fellowship, which provides tuition credits for students who take a gap year to perform public service. Eligible students can receive $10,000 tuition credit for each year of service up to a total of $40,000.
Students can apply for the fellowship during their senior year of high school and may defer enrollment for up to four years in order to complete their service. High-school graduates with a year or two of public service already under their belt also may apply.
That was the case for Coral Pistilli ’14 of Haddonfield, N.J., who was deeply immersed in City Year, a project of AmeriCorps, when she learned of the Dickinson program.
“I knew I always wanted to take a year and do volunteer work. It’s always been a dream for me,” she says. “I wanted to be able to do something really legitimate, really permanent, and not have other things going on.”
Pistilli’s year off meant working 12 hours a day at Figueroa Elementary School in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Committed to socioeconomic-justice issues and education equality, she was part of a six-person team that provided before-school and afterschool programming for about 50 children, ages 6 to 12.
Awake by 5 a.m., Pistilli took a 45-minute bus ride every day to meet the students by 7 a.m. at the school. She and her team members checked homework, provided breakfast and played games with the children until classes started at 8:30 a.m.
During the day, she worked as a teaching assistant in a third-grade classroom, supervised recess and lunch and tutored individual students. After school, she often stayed as late as 7 p.m., waiting with students for their parents to pick them up.
“It was my longest year ever,” she says with a smile. “But it was well worth it.”
Nelligan, happily ensconced at Dickinson and recently elected to Student Senate, now serves on the Enrollment & Student Life Committee. “They already put together 15 to 20 items to be priorities this year,” he says. “That’s a lot, but it’s manageable.”
He also writes columns for Youth Radio, something he’s done since 2008, and the Web news and opinion site The Huffington Post recently has picked up the columns.
Pistilli also is settling into her first semester. She’s joined the Outing Club and Spectrum, the college’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allies student organization, and enjoys her First-Year Seminar, Myth, Religion and Creative Impulses.
Both advocate taking time off between high school and college to take on a meaningful project or perform public service if it makes sense to do so—financially, educationally and personally.
“It’s really presumptuous to say, ‘Do what I did,’ ” says Pistilli. “But taking a year to do something that’s important to you—it doesn’t have to be volunteer work—is just so rewarding. I love school. I love learning. The point, though, was never to be a teacher. It was to do what really appeals to me.”
Watch Nelligan and Pistilli discuss their gap year or find out more about Dickinson’s Public Service Fellowship program.