Like many of us, I entered graduate school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to dig in and help students develop outside the classroom. I worked in the field for two years prior to attending graduate school and after a rather lengthy love affair with the idea of going to law school (of the psychology majors among us, who hasn’t thought they were going to law school at one point in time?), I was convinced I found my calling in student affairs. But my experience as a graduate student at one of the most prestigious universities in the country soon had me thinking differently.
I was in my second year of the masters in higher and postsecondary education program at Teachers College, Columbia’s Graduate School of Education, and feeling quite disenchanted with student affairs even though I’d barely just begun. While I was fortunate enough to have fantastic mentors in my graduate assistantships, at a school of that academic caliber, oftentimes the idea of student development outside the classroom is deemed significantly less important compared to the education students receive inside the classroom. By the end of two years in New York, I was fed up with the campus politics, the bureaucracy, and the attitude of many (but certainly not all) students that their parents paid the salaries of the university employees so we should do whatever they ask. My bright eyes were dulling and my bushy tail wasn’t quite so bushy anymore. I knew I needed a change and thought, “What’s the opposite of working with privileged university students in New York City?”
Working with at-risk elementary school youth in Anchorage, Alaska. Enter AmeriCorps. For those unfamiliar, AmeriCorps is like a domestic Peace Corps of sorts. Folks sign up to serve anywhere between a summer and a year doing just about anything service-related in communities across the country: outdoor educators for at-risk youth in California, reading tutors in Texas, building affordable housing in Louisiana, the list goes on. AmeriCorps members are paid a small living stipend, usually comparable to the poverty rate in the community in which you live. You’re also offered what’s called an education award that can be used to pay back student loans or for future schooling at the end of your term of service. Sounds pretty great right?
I spent just under a year in the Last Frontier serving as a tutor in an after-school program for elementary school students in a low-income housing community. Since I knew my time was limited, I took the opportunity to learn absolutely everything I could from the children and families I worked with every day. I saw firsthand the value of federally funded after-school meal programs, as it was the only food many of my students would get until their free breakfast at school the next morning. I learned about the challenges Alaska Natives faced when they moved to Anchorage from their local villages in search of work, only to be faced with poverty and discrimination. I spent time teaching English to refugees from Gambia and Laos, places that had never seen snow, who now lived in a land that was cold and dark for half the year. While I completely acknowledge that I couldn’t change the systemic and institutional structures that worked against my students in the short time I was there, I can acknowledge the value of getting an up close and personal look into the social justice issues facing this community, many of which are paralleled in communities across the nation.
My first year of service with AmeriCorps led to two more….for my second and third terms, I served as a team leader with the American National Civilian Community Corps, a team-based program for 18-24-year-olds who embark upon four long-term service projects throughout their 10-month term of service (think of it like four 8-week long Alternative Breaks.) I served as the direct supervisor, guidance counselor, life coach, budget manager, academic advisor, mediator, and mentor for a group of 10 fabulous young adults during my first year with NCCC. (Shout out to Class 18 Blue 3!) We spent that year together clearing downed trees and potential forest fire fuel in Northern California, serving as tutors for at-risk youth in inner-city Los Angeles, cultivating the land at a biodynamic farm in Northern Washington, and serving as camp counselors for people with disabilities in Salt Lake City. It was the most wonderfully challenging and enlightening year I could have possibly imagined. My second year, I served at the NCCC office in Sacramento, California, providing support to teams out in the field and to the program’s larger service-learning initiatives. NCCC was a perfect blend of my passion for working with young adults and my new found love for service-learning and social justice.
After spending three years living, learning, and serving in communities across the country, civic and community engagement has become central to who I am as a person, both personally and professionally. In the years since, a focus on social justice and community engagement has been at the core of the work I continue to do with college students. So thank you, AmeriCorps, for helping me get things done for America and for helping me find my way back to student affairs.