While it may be easy to understand what an AmeriCorps member does on a day-to-day basis in school, it may not be so easy to understand their reasons why. Those who serve with City Year spend long days devoting their time and effort to helping schools and communities throughout New Orleans. As someone who has observed firsthand the work and impact of AmeriCorps members, I wanted to dive deeper into the reasons why they do what they do. I talked with AmeriCorps member Emmanuel McDowell to learn why he chose City Year.
Why City Year
Emmanuel was on track to join the Peace Corps before a friend told him about her own City Year experience and encouraged him to apply. After applying and accepting the position with City Year, Emmanuel left for a year of service in New Orleans. As an African American male, Emmanuel says serving in New Orleans has made him feel that his service is particularly important, and that he is exactly where he should be, because he is a reflection of his students and can relate to their life experiences.
As a child, Emmanuel knew what it felt like to not have teachers who looked like him. He says, "I'm just trying to use my experience... to help them build some kind of resiliency. You can learn from every experience, and that's what I really try to express to them. Probably the biggest challenge is just trying to help them channel their feelings and the feelings that I had when I was in the same position that a lot of them are in."
While Emmanuel knew he wanted to serve with City Year, being assigned a position in New Orleans seemed like fate. Emmanuel gets to encourage students who are like him, giving him the chance to teach his students the lessons he had to learn on his own.
Motivation: Keep on Going
The willpower to keep on going can be tough for AmeriCorps members, especially when they are spending all day in school, sometimes as long as 12 hours. Emmanuel credits his motivation to his own experiences in school: “I think something that helps wake me up in the morning is the fact that I didn’t have a mentor in school– the fact that I can be that mentor--see their smiles and know I’m making an impact—that’s really cool. I can make them feel valued.”
After City Year: Life Lessons
Although AmeriCorps members are teaching students every day, AmeriCorps members also do a lot of learning in their time with City Year. “I think City Year provided a leadership role for me. When I was in high school and college, I wouldn’t say I was not a leader, but I would easily have taken a backseat with a lot of things,” Emmanuel says. Emmanuel has had to step up as a leader in order to help his students, starting clubs and bringing others in to influence his students and help them be successful.
Emmanuel also says he gained a holistic understanding of people by working not only with his students but also with other AmeriCorps members on his team. “You’re really going to have to figure out how to work with people from different places and with different life experiences,” Emmanuel says. He emphasizes that AmeriCorps members grow together by figuring out how to use their differences to give students the best they can.
Lastly, Emmanuel says the most important thing City Year has given him is confidence. After City Year graduation, Emmanuel hopes to work as an immigration paralegal and help those who are marginalized in society. City Year has given him the tools he needs to handle difficult situations, understand those who are different from him, and confidently make decisions that will benefit those he serves.
While every AmeriCorps member’s experience and background is different, each has their reason for wanting to serve with City Year. For Emmanuel, being a part of City Year New Orleans was meant to be. Throughout this year he has been a role model for his students. Motivated by genuine care for his students and a desire to see them succeed, Emmanuel persevered even when his work was difficult, or didn’t seem to be making a real difference. Now, reflecting on his year of service, Emmanuel sees that he not only helped his students grow, but that City Year helped him grow as well.
“If I knew then what I know now…I would definitely sign up again for City Year, because you make a real difference. Sometimes you get tired and feel like nothing is working—that it is too hard—but at the end of the day you emerge with the skills to step out of yourself and the knowledge that it’s just bigger than you."