How AmeriCorps Works at Changing My Ideas
In France, there is a saying used when a person decides to go somewhere with the goal of giving themselves time to think and reflect. Even if it’s as simple as taking a walk or as detailed as taking a trip across the world, they are going “pour me changer les idées”, or “to change my ideas”. A new setting has the power to change our thoughts, giving guidance to our choices.
I grew up in Ithaca, New York, the second daughter of two French parents. My family valued travelling, open-mindedness, and independence, but most of all, hard work and action- action to make progress in whatever field we chose. To be passionate about something necessitated action. Nothing was more intolerable than idle passion.
Throughout college, I was passionate about a variety of things; including psychology, art, mental health, and community development, but how to turn this passion into action baffled me. To my high-achieving sisters, direction seemed to come so naturally. The closer I got to my graduation date, the more anxious I became. Though I achieved good grades and was involved in activities I enjoyed, when I graduated from Cornell University in December 2008, I had as much direction as when I had first started college- that is to say, none.
My greatest source of unease stemmed from a lack of confidence in my ability to find meaningful work. With the economy being what it was, the entry level jobs I found in my post-college search seemed so menial, hollow, and at best, blandly tolerable. That, and the ones I found often required three to five years of experience, and I had none. I wanted to do something that would sustain me- not only financially, but as a whole person. I wanted to grow and discover my strengths. I was a self-cynical idealist.
I had heard of AmeriCorps from a friend who had done City Year. When I perused the AmeriCorps website, I was fascinated with the variety of positions available in a diversity of locations across the United States. So many of the available positions were intriguing- rich soils for personal and societal progress; I was overwhelmed with the number of choices. Though the stipend was small, I trusted in my ingrained frugality and resourcefulness my upbringing had so thoroughly instilled in me. I went for it, applying to positions in several states.
Though I was offered a position close to home in New York, I decided to go for one in Arizona, pour me changer les idées.
I remember driving across the country, stopping only to eat and sleep, driving through expansive plains and monsoon rains- it all felt very epic. A few days after arriving in Prescott, Arizona, I began my term of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA with First Things First, a statewide Arizona organization that works to make sure all young children, ages birth to five years, are healthy and ready to succeed in school.
My job was to support the projects of community coalitions that were working to meet the needs of young children in our community. At first, I had no idea what I was doing- I had never heard the word “collaboration” used so much in my life, not to mention my cluelessness in how to go about manifesting such a thing. However, my pervasive fear of failure was trumped by my desire to succeed at what I had come to do- serve the needs of young children. Soon, after diving head-first into projects, I was making connections and gliding through my term of service.
Most memorably, I conducted a study on child care, supported early childhood coalitions in their many collaborative projects, and I organized a countywide diaper drive, raising over 25,000 diapers for local children in need.
The work I was doing naturally connected me to the community, not only in a professional way, but in a way that comes with the realization that a place is no longer a place, it’s a new home. My year of service was not only a meaningful professional experience; it was an experience of building a life for myself.
Just before my term of service ended, a position opened up at First Things First- the Community Outreach Coordinator. The job consisted of raising awareness of the importance of early childhood and connecting parents to available resources to help them make sure their young children were given opportunities to reach their full potential. I needed no convincing to apply. I know that a large part of the reason I was offered the job was my experience serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with First Things First.
Two years later, in sporadic moments of reflection amidst the fast pace of my fulfilling job with First Things First, I am still stunned by the effect travelling across the country to complete a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA has had on my life. Through it, I discovered new strengths, new passions, and a confidence to apply these things- to take action.
Yes, I had done it pour me changer les idées, but I could have never imagined just how powerful that change could and would be.
UPDATE 3/26 – Check out Serve Yavapai’s video on how AmeriCorps Works for Claire