5 Things I Learned From My City Year Experience

It has been two years since I first answered the call to action and joined City Year as an AmeriCorps member.  Reflecting back on my red jacket days, I realize that I initially made a vow to serve with the intention of transforming a student’s life. However, when I walked across the graduation stage, I was the one who was completely and utterly transformed. There were many “a-ha” moments and lessons that I learned during my time of service but there were five in particular that stood out:

1.    What the value “service to a cause that is greater than self” truly means:

I never fully understood what “service to a cause greater than self” meant until I learned to put my service and organization’s mission before myself in order to support my students and team.  I always considered myself a selfless person and making sacrifices for the greater good never appeared to be a challenge until I was faced with the responsibility of devoting over 40 hours a week to combatting the dropout crisis and bringing my students up several grade levels. There were moments when I would find myself frustrated and on the verge of giving up but then I would remember that it was not about me; it was about my students. They needed me and I needed them just as much to help remind me of the bigger picture…the bigger mission.

2.    There is a difference between empathy and sympathy:

The students that I worked with had many obstacles that they had to overcome. They were extremely candid with me about the issues they were faced with and often looked to me for support. At times I would have to ask myself: “are you seeking to empathize with them or pitying them?” My students did not need someone to feel sorry for them. They needed an ally who was willing to see through their lens and understand the complexity of their circumstances.

3.    Success does not happen overnight. The best results take time:

As a millennial, it is in my nature to demand instant gratification. Patience is not a trait that comes as easily. I learned quickly that the work that we do is not meant to produce results overnight. It is an ongoing process that requires persistence and the will to keep trying despite setbacks. 

4.    The best results are not always quantifiable:

As a data driven organization, we look to numbers to assess our progress and performance. However, there are gains that cannot be quantified using the same metrics. Through my service, I learned that having a student go from sleeping in class to sitting up and taking notes is just as much of a win as having them pass a test. While you may not be able to produce a graph from behavioral changes, they are still a part of the bigger picture and can be a depiction of success.

5.    A support system is vital to endurance:

In the words of Bill Withers “we all need somebody to lean on”. This phrase rings true when I reflect on the feedback that I got from one of my students who told me that “simply being there for him was the best thing that I could have ever done”. My students did not need a savior to come in and “save the day”. They needed a champion; someone in their corner ready to advocate for their needs and potential. Knowing that you have people rallying behind you and rooting for your success, gives you the will to keep pushing forward.  

As I get acclimated in my new role as City Year staff, I will take these lessons and experiences from my red jacket days and use them as a tool for continuous growth. I will never forget the people that supported me along the way and the students that taught me that you must first better yourself before you can #makebetterhappen.

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