“Everyone can be great because anyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t even have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love …” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It wasn’t until I served as an AmeriCorps*VISTA that I truly understood Dr. King’s words and how committing to serve your community could shape your own “greatness.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Experimental Psychology and Counselor Education from the University of South Carolina in 2014, I found myself staring into a blank year ahead of me. My dream of pursuing a Master’s in Social Work while serving in the Peace Corps (through the Master’s International program) had very suddenly been put on hold. Amidst the disappointment, one thing was clear: I was determined to making the year meaningful and continue with my plan to use my counseling skills and experiences volunteering in the US and Africa to help those in need. But I wanted to do more than shed light on the issues that I had already seen, and actually help enforce the change most people only talk about. So, when I found the opportunity to serve as an AmeriCorps*VISTA with South Carolina Campus Compact, I could not pass it up.
My assignment: At the University of South Carolina Aiken, I would be working to establish high impact initiatives (such as a mentoring and tutoring program) for the university community to engage in, in hopes of increasing the educational success of economically disadvantaged children in Aiken County, South Carolina.
My expectations: Although I was aware that my site was having trouble engaging their students on campus and in the community, I expected to work with a university staff member who was involved with community service directly. I expected to be given a direction (along with some freedom) and outline specific goals with the staff member to work towards. I expected it to be difficult but rewarding, especially once I started to recruit, train, and manage student volunteers.
But as everyone in the non-profit sector knows, expectations are very rarely met in perfect form. Little did I know, I would be embarking on a personal and professional journey filled with challenges and rewards.
My reality: I was not managed by a staff member in charge of community service. I was given little direction (especially towards the end of my service), and a little too much freedom for someone who had as little project management skills as I did. In the first month, there was very little structure to the project, and I quickly realized that I would be responsible for creating that structure and direction. Instead of working with community partners and recruiting and training volunteers, I was educating the university on who I was, what the AmeriCorps*VISTA project could do, and how students at USCA could help fight poverty in Aiken County. Unlike most VISTAs, I felt cut off from the community and forced to focus on USCA. Though I love the field of Student Affairs, I didn’t join AmeriCorps to work solely in that field. I did it to collaborate with the community and actively manage programs to help eradicate poverty.
Determined to make this year of service worthwhile for both Aiken and myself, I set out to build the foundation of this project. I decided (after much frustration) that strengthening the campus’ civic engagement culture would be my main mission. The only way of accomplishing that would be to talk to students about service and poverty: what poverty looks like in America, the potential strength of non-profit organizations, the power of this young generation to join in the fight against poverty, and the personal benefits of committing to help eradicate it. Along with telling my story of how my whole life was changed by service, I had to create powerful environments to host these discussions. Service Saturday, an initiative I participated in at USC, was the perfect program to provide that setting. Once a month on a Saturday morning at a selected site, my volunteers were able to step out of the comfort zone of USCA and witness the invisible poverty that exists in Aiken County. Even with indirect programs promoted by the Resident Student Association and MLK Day of Service, I wanted these opportunities to act as a catalyst for change within themselves, in how they saw the world, and in how they recognized their role in strengthening it.
At the end of the year, 183 volunteers served a total of 281 hours in three different programs that focused on education, hunger, and access to basic necessities.
I do not have any regrets about dedicating a year to USCA and the Aiken community. I would have never understood the importance of sustainability and capacity building in public service programs. If welfare systems are living up to their missions, should they not be in the business of running themselves out of business? Working on a campus, I realized the importance of organizing all community service activities and programs, as the university will be able to use that identified civic engagement to help their own community and recruit and retain students. I witnessed the beautiful outcome and power of community collaboration. I gained project management, leadership, and organization skills, as well as a love for international student affairs and the confidence to take initiative on my passions. Most valuable of all was this realization: as citizens of this great nation, we are all obligated to play a role in helping our fellow man, not for the sake of bettering ourselves, but for the sake of creating a healthy, successful environment for all. Each of us is only as strong as our sense of community.
My future plans: Moving forward, I will be pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Rhode Island in Human Development and Family Studies with a focus on College Student Personnel. My experiences during my year of service helped me secure an assistantship with the Office of Faculty-Led programs, which helps faculty plan study abroad trips and foreign students’ transition to make the best out of the study abroad experience. I have dreams working for the Fulbright Program, or developing an international “learning service” program in which students can learn the processes of effective community development. I am so excited to combine my passions of travel, service, and student affairs, and actually develop a career out of them. But I know AmeriCorps has touched my soul forever, because of my constant craving for promoting sustainability, capacity building, and what it means to serve a community in the true sense of the word.
My mantra as I end my service: I am leaving knowing that I built a foundation for high-impact civic engagement programs, helped in starting to strengthen the culture of community service on campus, and trained the next VISTA to continue making an impact in the Aiken community. Jonathan Larson once asked the world: "How do you measure a year?" I measured the past nine months in sustainability, civic engagement, new friendships, anti-poverty, living in poverty, mentorship, Indian food, Service Saturdays, new family, non-profits, exploring, mentoring and tutoring, goodbyes, leadership, diversity, international student affairs, marathon training, personal statements, alumni living, healthy eating, gardens, solo trips, free concerts, service learning, books, laughter, frustration and growth. Oh, and lots of love.
“We must choose to create a world where respect and acceptance are the rule, not the exception.” – Linda Hooper