I first found out about City Year in the fall of my senior year of high school, while researching gap year options online. It’s been five years since then and I have a hard time conceptualizing exactly what prompted me to apply in the first place, but I remember looking at the application with an overwhelming desire to do something big. Yes, something good. Yes, something interesting and challenging and altruistic that would look attractive on my resume and hopefully broaden my college prospects. But mostly I was attracted to the idea of something larger than me that would sweep me up out of the small alcove of the world I had grown up in and land me on a different a shore, a shore that would involve an understanding of social justice issues on the ground level and a sense of what could be done about them.
Then, I never could have imagined how much I would learn. In many ways, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, even after I was accepted to the program in Seattle, even after I found a sketchy apartment and a (not sketchy) roommate, even after I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket in August 2008. I was eighteen years old. I had never lived on my own before. I had grown up in rural Iowa. I had never been to Seattle. Though my parents were public school teachers, I had no experience teaching. Truthfully, kids kind of freaked me out.
I’m still processing even now, two years after I graduated from City Year, all of the ways I grew during my City Years. Like most life experiences, it was both wonderful and truly hard, invigorating and numbing. Sometimes I came home from work manic and optimistic, sometimes I took off my work boots at the door and cried. The best I can do, I suppose, is give you just a few of the most significant lessons I learned:
1. I learned to love my host city in a complex way – for its beauty, but also its challenges.
When you apply to City Year, you can choose to apply directly to one of 24 sites around the country (plus international sites in London and South Africa). I chose to apply directly to Seattle mostly because I had never been there. I romanticized the city. I had detailed fantasies about the dimly-lit coffee shops I would frequent, the days I would spend kayaking on Lake Union.
Though I did end up loving the city just as much as (if not more than) I thought I would, my understanding of Seattle as a city was made complex by the large urban area I covered on the job. My first year I spent between two and three hours per day commuting via public transit from my apartment in the north end of Seattle to my service site, a community center in the south end, and to City Year headquarters in a completely different area of the city. To this day, I can easily sketch a detailed approximation of most the city’s bus lines on a cocktail napkin.
Each Friday, the entire corps – 50-60 corps members – came together from our respective service sites for one large-scale service project or training. We painted murals in elementary school hallways, mulched public trails, decorated shelters for the holidays, harvested lettuce in community gardens, lead middle school students in environmental service with EarthCorps, and so much more. Because these Friday projects were held in a different place each week, often involving at least an hour of travel time from my home, I was introduced to neighborhoods, parks, and social service organizations that I might not have been otherwise, expanding my definition of what it meant to serve the Seattle area.
Working with at-risk public school students from all over the city added another layer of complexity to my understanding of Seattle. The tensions between socioeconomic and cultural divides in different neighborhoods, as well discrepancies in opportunity and access were made all the more real to me because I worked in public schools with children – the individuals for whom these injustices have the greatest impact. In the end, you will come to root for your host city and the students you love the way my brother roots for his favorite baseball team – with a compound, vehement loyalty, an understanding of their weakest points, and a desire for them to perform beyond adverse circumstances.
2. I learned how to work with anyone. Anyone.
Within each City Year site, corps members are broken up into teams of four to eight people. You will spend up to 12 hours (and no less than eight) a day with these people. You will work with children with them. You will eat lunch with them and talk about life and politics and love and occasionally have an emotional meltdown in front of them. Though you will not like all of them, you will learn to work with (or at least alongside) them simply because, for the most part, you all believe in the small, daily goals (i.e. help seventh-grader Monica understand improper fractions) and the larger goals (help Monica pass her math class, fill vital gaps in the larger high-need public education system).
Just like any college admissions site, City Year’s recruitment website talks a lot about the diversity of the corps. Beyond racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, what I found remarkable about the diversity of my corps was the diversity of age, education, and experience. Over my two years, I served on teams that included a 21-year-old with some community college experience, a 22-year-old Princeton grad, an 18-year-old high school graduate, and a 24-year-old in the process of applying to graduate school. None of us were from the same area of the country, and none of us had exactly the same life outlook. Although this sometimes caused operational friction and promoted conflict, it also promoted dialogue, leading to insightful conversations on race, class, education, and privilege — issues we were all confronted with in our daily service.
3. I learned that there are some phenomenal public school teachers.
By the spring of 2010, the end of my second year, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. On an end-of-the-year outing with some students which should have been fun, carefree, and relaxed – a celebration of our time and growth together over the year – I found myself snapping “Let’s play the quiet game!” at a group of sixth grade girls “singing” a Nicki Minaj song in the back of the bus. It wasn’t that I didn’t still care about the kids I worked with or didn’t believe in what I was doing anymore – I was just really, really tired.
I was struck by how tireless so many of the teachers whose classrooms I worked in could be – or, rather, how perseverant, patient, and passionate they could be in the face of exhaustion. I owe most of what I learned about working with youth in a constructive, compassionate way to these teachers. This opened my eyes to just how challenging it is to be a great public school teacher in our current system, prompting another realization…
4. …I learned what I don’t want to do for the rest of my life.
As fulfilling as direct service with students could be, and while I still have a passion for public education, I realized that, right now, teaching in a high-need, urban classroom isn’t what I see myself doing for the majority of my career. This is mostly a matter of patience and endurance (see anecdote above). Maybe this will mean pursuing an administrative role in public education. Maybe this will mean becoming a better-trained teacher or teaching in a different capacity. Either way, it’s comforting to be able to narrow my career focus to align with my strengths and weaknesses.
5. I learned that there is still so much work to do.
My City Year co-workers and I used to joke about our L.A.C.Y. (Life After City Year) plans. At the time, Life After City Year seemed unthinkable — we were so wrapped up in the City Year world: the (unique) culture of the organization, the intensive daily routine, our co-workers and students who became significant figures in our lives.
My L.A.C.Y. was Middlebury. This was not an easy transition. It was difficult to reconcile my challenging experiences — that opened my eyes to social injustice, specifically in education — with being in a college environment alongside kids two years younger than me, most straight out of high school. I had a hard time figuring out how to leverage my experiences into a meaningful academic career. Now, I’m trying to appreciate the friction I feel between these two worlds in a way that fuels my ambition to work in a social justice capacity after I graduate, having acquired complex yet applicable knowledge to make me an even better teacher and a more effective agent of social change.
City Year’s motto is “Give a year, change the world.” I would extend this appeal to anyone my age, beyond the context of City Year or any specific organization. I would genuinely encourage you to consider a year of national service as a step in your lifelong education and career path with the understanding that the good you do in that year (and beyond) will be two-fold – beneficial for you and those you serve. There are so, so many ways to “give a year.” For some of you (and I hope it is) yours could be City Year.