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.


7 thoughts on “rejected

  1. The frustrations of logistics but the rewards always outweighed any annoyances. This detour seems to suit your enthusiasm. Live life a bit before graduate school. I was an aged grad student but I could really read, decode and deconstruct research as I had a basis of comparison. I hope your evident enthusiasm continues to bloom.

    • Thanks, and thanks for the comment! My service with Americorps was actually in 2003-2004, so I’ve entered and, just this past May, finished my PhD. I am indeed glad that I took a year off — a year well spent!

  2. It looks like you’ve gotten a lot out of these experiences. Treat every rejection as if God has something better for you in mind. Be patient with Him and persevere in faith, and He will reward you in a way you haven’t dreamed of. (I say this to you because I need to hear it also… I just received a thin envelope from a potential employer, too.)

  3. Plus, if not for your year with Americorps, you would not have known that in ’03-’04 in the Finley Fizzle, “today’s special” was BACON every day. Nom nom nom. 🙂

  4. When I somewhat unintentionally retired from medical librarianship in 1985, I entered into “direct service” doing a bit of volunteer stuff at Rice (Homecoming, Alumni College committees) but mostly centered in my church which was transitioning into an urban ministry and developing informational and fund-raising programs (slideshows at the time–would be powerpoint now) for Lifeline Chaplaincy, a Texas Medical Center program.
    I “wrote the community” by editing a newsletter, developing programs, handling publicity, producing slideshows, setting up displays… I did a lot of Bible study and church teaching. I developed and organized a church library which included references for school kids whose home environments were resource-poor. I mentored dozens of teens. I tutored english, math, and anything else they needed help with–and since many had no study skills and deficient vocabularies it was often hard slugging. I prepped lots of kids for SAT/ACT tests. I helped with reading days at an elementary school and judged the science fair. It was in fact my second career from which I am now happily retired.
    My experience as a volunteer was probably very different from that of someone who is actually being paid for service, but without question it was the most rewarding experience of my life. It opened my eyes to the blessings I enjoyed in my life while making me aware of the diversity of Houston’s cultures. It moved my understanding of the ravages of poverty out of a purely theoretical realm. There is no question that some of what I did made a difference.
    I applaud your efforts to urge your students from behind the hedges into the world. I also applaud your service with Americorps and the work you did with children this summer. Well done, Victoria!

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