Like many graduating college seniors, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Where do I go? Will I have to move? How do I search for jobs? What kinds of jobs should I go for? Am I actually qualified for anything? Can I use my Spanish? Can I work somewhere that’s environmentally conscious? Will I become just another drone in the system that is the American workforce? WHAT DO I DO?! As my search went on, it eventually became apparent that I wanted to go for something along the lines of youth development, most likely influenced heavily by my experiences both as a camper and working at Camp Manito-wish YMCA. During this time of incessant questions and nagging at the back of my mind, my mom eventually called me and told me about an organization that a family friend of ours worked for: College Possible. I looked into it and it caught my eye right away. I had considered Teach for America at one point, but had realized as I was about to write the essay portion that I had no idea what to write. Teaching is not something I can see myself being really good at, but the idea of being more of an advisor to students and working in a more personal setting really caught my attention. As I learned more about College Possible and found out it was an AmeriCorps position, it more meant to me that I would be working for a good cause with little pay. The phrase “term of service” never quite registered for me. It was something I was interested in and passionate about, and those two facts alone are what landed me the job as a College Coach.
When it finally became time for my “service” to begin, I began piecing together what AmeriCorps and College Possible actually meant. During our kickoff week I was even more sold on College Possible than I had been before. There were so many inspiring stories and such dedication and motivation among everyone around me that it was impossible not to fully accept everything the organization stands for. Most significant, however, was the sense of community of the 300+ people from around the country all in one place with the same mission in mind: supporting people to achieve their goals when no one else can or will. I heard someone say this during one of my summers working at Camp: “Every person who works at Camp Manito-wish is a beautiful person.” I have of course extend this to everyone at College Possible as well. Being surrounded my such incredible people was pretty intimidating to me at first, but I figured they hired me for a reason and so there must be something worthy about me too.
The other AmeriCorps members I interacted with and respected to no end already knew the significance of a term of service, at least from what I could tell. At the beginning of my official work as a College Coach I still don’t think I fully realized what was happening. It was great finally interacting with students. Some were overjoyed and excited to meet me, some were neutral, and some I still have to have an actual conversation with before they stop responding or hang up on me. Ultimately it became a job to me. Granted it was a job that I loved; everyone I worked with was wonderful, I was sold on the organization, and I knew that I was growing as a person, which of course is extremely important to me. But it was still a job. I don’t think too many people would associate a cubicle job in an office as a way of directly “serving” someone. It took me awhile to figure that out too.
Fast forward to the past couple of months. At this point all of my students have finished a semester (always crucial for freshmen), have grown in different ways, and have had different experiences that lead to a ton of challenges, though many of these can be positive. I have gotten to know a lot of my students, but nowhere near as many as I would like. It’s a difficult task, given I am advising 166 students across multiple schools, they are constantly busy with college life in general, and most of our interactions take place electronically. Even so, just scrolling through my coaching Facebook Newsfeed, I can still grow attached to my students. It’s an interesting phenomenon, actually. Here are students that I may have had three or four ten-minute conversations with and I have gotten invested in who they are, where they’re going, and what they can accomplish. Granted it can be frustrating and even heartbreaking sometimes, but I have realized that those are the moments that matter. Talking a student through a tough semester, getting them pumped for the next one, having a difficult conversation about academic suspension, and putting together a strategy for the next few months are all really hard to do. Especially when you can’t see them face-to-face. But again, those meaningful conversations, even if it’s just a quick text to see if they’re doing okay, are what matter the most.
So what does a “term of service” actually mean? It took me until quite recently to figure this out, and I’m sure many other people would have completely different answers, but I think I’ve narrowed down on something that’s meaningful and keeps me going personally. When a student is stressed, worried, even terrified about their future, it is my job to keep them going. I would definitely not say this is a daily occurrence, or that most of my students are struggling, but it’s the conversations that end with the words “thank you” or “I appreciate what you do” or “I know you care” that truly define what service is. Even writing this and thinking about those few conversations that end like that (among the hundreds I have had) gets me a little emotional. And in the moment when my students say those things to me, I barely realize what I did because it’s my job to talk to them. It always catches me by surprise, and it is in those moments when I realize that I did something that I am finally able to define service. For me, “service” is the feeling that I get when I am taken aback by something my students said to me, when the slightest lump in my throat forms and I can smile in my cubicle by myself like a dork because I know that I made a difference.