There were a few dark days at the end of my undergraduate career, when I would creak open the small brass door of my apartment mailbox each afternoon and find yet another graduate school rejection letter.
Nothing is more debilitating than a sad, thin envelope from the chair of another department, insisting that the candidate pool was full of very impressive people who had cured cancer among orphans in the Sudan, when your plans for Fall 2003 are foggy at best. As my friends anticipated graduation and made plans for law school or perfectly reasonable entry level positions in their perfectly reasonable careers, I filed away my no-thank-you letters with the unique sort of shellshock that comes with certain plans gone unexpectedly awry.
I needed something to do post-cap and gown, and I needed something fast.
That was why I signed up for Americorps. It would be much more impressive if I had committed to a year of service for more virtuous reasons, but, having decided to try my luck in another round of grad school applications the following winter, I needed a year-long stop-gap. As an Americorps volunteer, I would be conveniently occupied — and barely paid — for a full year. An entire 365 days to figure something out.
After a year in Raleigh, recruiting tutor-mentors for at-risk kids and doing some tutoring and mentoring myself, I left for Rice, unaware that just a few years later my experiences with the students served by the community organization that hosted me as an Americorps VISTA would palpably transform my perspective as an academic. I grew up with Caddie Woodlawn and Charlie’s chocolate factory and Maniac McGee and Avi’s Charlotte Doyle, setting off on her extraordinarily improbable sea voyage. These kids often didn’t, and when they discovered a book they loved — or a book they could read without struggle — it was An Event. Reading is hard. And amazing. It sounds simple and trite, but it’s important to remember.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I’m still inclined to make a rude face at all of those departments that denied me admission,* and I think I could have led a perfectly happy life without my time in Americorps. But I do believe that extended service can change your worldview, and that I’m lucky to have stumbled into it.
So! Next semester, I’m teaching a service-learning writing course called Writing the Community. I’ll be sending about twenty students into Houston to perform direct service for a semester. Figuring out the logistics for the course is a bigger task than I had anticipated, but I’m excited about the prospect of helping a few students figure out how they might exist in a world outside of Rice’s hedges.
In light of this new challenge, I humbly ask you, carrots readers, what are your experiences with community service, good and bad?
* Including, in fact, Rice, as I wasn’t accepted the first time I applied.