Gillian Smith, Chief Marketing Officer, City Year

In the spring of 2013 I was presenting City Year’s #makebetterhappen recruitment campaign at an Association of National Advertisers conference. Seated in the crowd day was Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Raphael Hernandez of the Marine Corps. To use a drill command that translates to civilian English, he put me right at ease. Lt. Col. Hernandez introduced himself informally as Ralph, and I learned that he leads advertising and marketing for Marine Corps recruitment.  Lt. Col. Hernandez and I listened closely to each other’s marketing strategies and presentations and came to realize that our organizations could learn a lot from each other.  Not only did we end up exchanging business cards, we began meeting regularly to share recruitment and marketing insights.  We’ve now become friends.  

I didn’t have much exposure to the military growing up – while my own father is an Army veteran, he served in an office in Washington, D.C. in computer services after he had already completed college, and he never saw combat. I always had incredible respect for military service, and in particular, always viewed Marines as elite and tough – embodying their well-known “The few, the proud, the Marines” marketing slogan.

Before I met Ralph and his colleagues, I expected that there would be vast differences between the values of the Marines and City Year – perhaps particularly so in our processes and the types of candidates our organizations recruit. I found quite the opposite to be the case.

I was fortunate to spend two days with many members of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command last November. The more time I spend with Lt. Col Hernandez and fellow Corps members, the more I realize just how much our organizations have in common, and how much of what I’ve learned from the Marines is relevant to our work at City Year.

  1. Education is a national security issue.  The Pentagon estimates that two-thirds of young Americans don’t qualify for military service (WSJ reference) (Jordan, 2014) because of the educational and legal requirements. To enlist in the armed services, potential recruits must have at least a high school diploma (or GED) with some college credit, and they must pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test, an exam that assesses English language proficiency, science, math, and cognitive skills. Today, a quarter of high school graduates can’t pass the test (Jordan, 2014). City Year is focused on getting more kids to high school graduation, and ready for their future adult lives, whether they pursue college, military or civilian service, or a more traditional career path. Educational preparedness is important for our economy, and for our national security.  


  1. Ductus Exemplo.   While many Americans are familiar with the “Semper Fidelis” motto (meaning “always faithful”), U.S. Marine Corps officers frequently reference “Ductus Exemplo,” meaning “lead by example.” As a member of City Year’s senior leadership team, I strive to uphold this principle myself.  Just as our military service men and women are role models, City Year AmeriCorps members model responsible civic behavior in the schools and communities we serve. For example, when wearing their signature red jackets and uniforms, our AmeriCorps members are asked to give up their seats while riding public transportation, cross the street in crosswalks only.  I’ve heard Marines mention “you are a Marine 24x7”, and City Year corps members will tell you the same thing about their time serving with us.


  1. Aligned core values.  The Marines have three core values: Honor, Courage and Commitment. City Year’s core values are parallel in many respects. We believe that “Service to a Cause Greater Than Self” can help our nation overcome its greatest challenges and build a better future for us all.  “Teamwork” at City Year promotes the idea that when in pursuit of a common goal, the whole team is greater than the sum of its individual parts and is more powerful together.  Military units know this first-hand, as any Marine will attest. Teamwork is epitomized by the Marine Corps War Memorial of the second flag raising at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945: this iconic image honors not the weaponry or technology of the personnel, but the teamwork of this group of Marines and a Navy corpsman. We at City Year have learned how the Marine Corps puts their values into their everyday actions – from strategy development, to recruitment practices, and decision making – with their values pervading their actions each and every day.  

  2. Service can have a lasting impact on individuals and communities.  I’ve asked several Marines what they are most proud of during their service.  Many mention humanitarian work, which is perhaps surprising, given their tough image.  Responses have included, “Helping to clean up in Japan after the tsunami,” “Holding the first free elections in northern Iraq, with women able to vote for the first time and a voter turnout rate of 80%,” and “Watching two girls in Afghanistan, about 12 years old skip down the street because they were so excited they could attend school for the very first time.” They speak about these experiences with reverence, making it easy to see the profound impact that their service has had on their lives.  

The service of City Year AmeriCorps members elicits similar emotions.  I’ve heard their deep sense of satisfaction when they relate how a student says that “she wants to go to college now instead of dropping out,” or learn that a school principal credits City Year as a key factor in how his school went from an F to an A rating. The personal and community value of public service also inspired General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, Former Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, to help build the Franklin Project, an initiative that encourages a year of service among young people.  It is what inspired City Year alum Michael Spinnato (Boston ’02) to join the US Marine Corps following his service with City Year.

  1. Service = increased civic engagement.  The Marines have countless stories of veterans who have gone on to do great things – from Seth Moulton, who was recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, to Jake Wood, the co-founder of Team Rubicon, an organization established in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that now engages hundreds of veterans in disaster relief efforts. Military service is strongly correlated with greater political participation and volunteering, and year of service with City Year is no different.  Of its more than 20,000 alumni, City Year has individuals who have gone on to become educators, social workers, non-profit entrepreneurs, and business leaders.  Seth Marbin, a City Year alum, helped to start Google’s corporate social responsibility arm and has been recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change.  When we commissioned an independent study of our alumni, we found that City Year alums were more civically engaged than the general population, and even compared to other participants in similar organizations.     

At City Year, we often reference the quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Through my friendship with Lt. Col. Hernandez, I now realize that while the USMC and City Year have very different approaches to national service, our commitments to improving communities both in the U.S. and around the globe have transformative power, both for individuals and the world at large.


Jordan, M. (2014, June 27). "Recruits' Ineligibility Tests the Military". Wall Street Journal.


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