by Brenna Eaton, City Year Boston ’12
Our first zebra spotting!
One of the benefits of serving with City Year is earning a Segal Education Award through AmeriCorps. This award (valued at $5,920) helps AmeriCorps alumni deepen their own professional learning. The money can be used in a variety of ways. A few years after I served, many of my friends were using their awards to pay for graduate school, but I still had no plan for how I wanted to use my Segal Education Award. Then, I heard about an amazing way I could use my award to travel and gain cultural experiences.
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a global nonprofit school that offers wilderness and leadership education. As a participant, you hike and camp in the backcountry, while taking leadership opportunities on your team and changing the way that you see and interact with nature and the environment around you. I learned about NOLS from another City Year alum who used his award to become certified in Wilderness Medicine.
How I chose my NOLS program
NOLS offers a variety of courses and trips all over the world for high school students, college students and post grads. Trip lengths can range anywhere from two weeks to a school year. I originally considered a trip to Alaska, but the difficulty level seemed like too much for me. The admissions advisors at NOLS picked up the phone any time I needed them to answer my questions and they helped me pick the best course for myself. Throughout my trip preparation, they were also there to answer questions about anything from my travel visa to what gear and supplies I’d need.
I’d been curious about African wildlife for decades and when I learned that the East African excursion includes a safari, I immediately fell in love. I chose a one-month trip in Tanzania that was designed for participants 23 and older.
Why NOLS? The Culture
When researching international trips, it was important to me that the program I picked practice cultural competency. Any time we visited a new community with a local guide, we respected the cultural norms of that community. We were only there to learn about Tanzania from local people, not to create change in communities that were not our own. I appreciated that two of my three NOLS instructors were local; one of my instructors was Maasai, which is an area of Tanzania and Kenya, and another was from Kenya. One of the participants on my trip was also local and this excursion was one of many pieces of training for him to be a future trip leader. Two local guides also accompanied us on different parts of the trip; our guides were members of or spoke the language of any community we visited.
Using my award
If you choose to pursue a year or a semester, NOLS will now match your Segal award! I chose my shorter trip, in part, because it was affordable. Now that NOLS matches your award, it is much more feasible to go on a semester-long trip.
Don’t forget, though, that you’ll need to pay taxes on your Ed award, so I recommend using your award in a year where you know you’ll be getting a tax refund, to offset the cost. I broke about even.
We still love strong circles.
NOLS taught me perseverance
Like my City Year experience, NOLS gave me the patience to face new challenges with spirit. I made my way through the backcountry following game trails made by animals and got within a dozen feet of some of them. I learned about Tanzanian culture, history and the environment, and practiced basic Swahili. I tried bee pollen and larvae, a great source of protein! We roasted food cooked over a bonfire with local community members. I listened to hyenas pad quietly around my tent at night. I visited both rainforests and deserts and saw the Southern Cross below the equator. I hiked into and out of a giant crater full of flamingos and learned how to protect my things from being stolen by sneaky, rainbow-colored monkeys. I visited historical sites like Olduvai Gorge, went on a safari, and hiked around an active volcano. All of this with a 50-60 lb. bag on my back.
Of the nine participants in my group, seven of us were using an AmeriCorps award for the course. I was surrounded by other AmeriCorps alums, which made our group even closer. City Year’s values of teamwork, inclusivity and service to a cause greater than self defined my experience.
Later in the trip, I got sick, but my team was there to carry some of my things, or carry me! While some of these things sound a little more comfortable than others, every moment I experienced showed me that I was stronger than I thought I was and gave me the confidence to explore new terrain at home, too. Since returning from the trip, I’ve been able to explore the mountains of Colorado and parts of Utah.
Ol Doinyo Lengai- “Mountain of God” in Maasai:
Especially after getting sick, I was so proud to have finished this trip! This was taken in the Great Rift Valley on our last day.