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The Segal Fellowship: How My Wending Path in National Service Led to DC

February 17, 2012

Today’s guest post comes from Will Chrysanthos, the 2011 Eli Segal Fellow with CNCS. He is currently serving as the Partnerships and Field Operations Officer for the CNCS Disaster Services Unit. Will is a three time AmeriCorps Alum, having served with the Breakthrough Collaborative, Teach for America, and Hands On Mississippi as a VISTA.

AmeriCorps has never failed to present me with abundant opportunity and transformational change.

I was an eighteen year old, fresh out of my high school graduation gown, with the vague notion that I enjoyed working with children, when I was buried in an avalanche of good fortune faster than I could hold my breath.  I was accepted to become an AmeriCorps member with the Breakthrough Collaborative in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was assigned a classroom of middle school students to teach classes in Anatomy and Forensics.

Within days into training I had forgotten I had even attended high school and was fretting about whether my lesson plans would cater to the multiple intelligences of my students, and whether I’d have enough fetal pigs for my class to run a proper dissection laboratory.  I began to refer to myself as a teacher with pride that summer, and nothing since has ever been the same.

The gifted poet Marge Piercy once openly admired in her work “To be of use”,

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

Years after my first foray into service, I yearned to once again seek new challenge and opportunity, to be among people who jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows.  AmeriCorps offered me that chance through Teach for America, where I trained to teach science in Watts, California, and then went on to teach special education in St. Louis, Missouri.  Within hours, the thought that I had ever called myself a teacher at eighteen years old literally made me sick.  THIS was teaching, and for two years I became so deeply engrossed in the phonetic abilities of my 10 students that I began getting confused myself and pronouncing R-words with a St. Louis diction (tutorial: here = hur; there = thur; air = ur)

Ms. Piercy went on,

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

Education, perhaps, wasn’t my calling, but along the way, AmeriCorps instilled in me a massive patience, a tool that I consider crucial, and a characteristic that has served me well ever since, and notably so in my subsequent job as a bartender in Seattle, Washington.  Often referred to as the “other national service”, restaurant work was child’s play compared to the classroom, and petulant patrons were laughably harmless compared to the mock tragedies and high drama that string together a middle school student’s life.

Ms. Piercy continued,

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

AmeriCorps has a knack for putting people in over their heads.  Not in a bad way, but in a healthy and instructive forum that allows the daring citizen-volunteer to test the boundaries of their own abilities and forge new ones along the way.

I had never endured disaster a before, neither had I sifted debris, or framed a house, but witnessing the aftermath of hurricane Katrina unfold in the news, I knew that I could be of use.  I quit Seattle and drove to Biloxi, Mississippi where I sought people who submerge in the task, and yet again, I joined AmeriCorps, alongside an army of other volunteers hell bent on rebuilding the Gulf.  Four years passed, and with our noses constantly sniffing out the next home to rebuild, many of us Katrina volunteers stuck around, transferred our licenses, and made the regrowth of the Gulf Coast our life.

Ms. Piercy concluded,

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Will with VISTAs in Disaster Recovery.

There is honor in all work, but nothing has been more satisfying than the service that AmeriCorps had enabled me to embark upon.  I knew that I wanted to continue on this path by growing AmeriCorps at a national level, and when I heard about the Eli Segal Fellowship at the Corporation for National Service (CNCS) headquarters in DC, I knew it was my chance.  The Fellowship is named after the late Eli Segal, the first CEO of CNCS, and its purpose is to all allow AmeriCorps Alums to help advance the mission and strategic goals of National Service in the United States.

Soon after I was accepted, I was sitting in a restaurant in DC across from John Gomperts, the Director of AmeriCorps, planning what National Service initiatives I wanted to take part in.  After so many years in the field, discussing high level programming with potential impact to the whole National Service movement was a dream come true.  My service as a Segal fellow was broad in scope and allowed me to work across many departments at CNCS on projects as varies as overhauling the AmeriCorps member experience to disaster deployment in Joplin, Missouri coordinating response operations following a May 2011 tornado.

Just as Marge Piercy, I crave work that is real. I had assumed that once I left the field to begin more policy centric work in DC that I would need to sacrifice that to continue serving a program that I love.  Thankfully, I was completely mistaken, and if anything, my service to our country has made the work I do now with CNCS feel even more connected, real, and sweet, by enabling others to serve as I once did.

The Eli Segal Fellowship at CNCS is recruiting now!  Click Here to Apply.  If you are an AmeriCorps Alum who has served in the past three years, you should absolutely consider applying for this tremendous opportunity.  The deadline is February 27, 2012. 

I will be hosting a Q&A call for all those interested in applying  TODAY, February 17, at 1pm EST, Toll-Free Number: 888-324-3916, Participant Passcode: 8802097.  I hope that you will be able to join me!

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