A Student In Service: Feeding My Soul, Feeding Myself (Literally)
Today’s guest post comes from Mariya Taher, a two term AmeriCorps Alum (’09, ’10)
As a graduate student at San Francisco State University from 2008 to 2010, I was poor. It didn’t help matters that I was pursuing a Master of Social Work (MSW), a degree not known for being lucrative. Instead, an MSW is pursued because of one’s personal belief that they have something to give to the world. They have a helping hand.
Yet, good intentions do not always feed the mouth. Being a struggling student again after having taken a couple years off in between undergrad and graduate school to join the working world was not an easy task. I wanted to help. I wanted to learn about social services. And I wanted to eat more than top ramen every night.
AmeriCorps helped relieve some of that stress. While I was in school, the Corporation for National and Community funded a program called Students in Service. The program allowed students such as myself, to gain valuable knowledge about working in the social service sector by allowing us to volunteer our time at a non-profit of our choosing, and earn money to finance our education. It allowed my classmates and I to apply skills learned in the classroom to gain required credit towards our degree, and to meet the critical needs in the community by serving under served communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I gained many valuable skills while completing over 1200 hours of service during my two years in the AmeriCorps program. During my first year of service, I served in Mentoring for Success, an after-school program at middle schools for at-risk youth. During my second year of service, I worked at the Department on the Status of Women, a city government department focused on providing programs bettering the lives of women through anti-domestic violence work, gender equality in the workplace, and upholding the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. For me, the best part of participating in AmeriCorps was that I felt rewarded doing the work that I was doing.
Don’t get me wrong, at times, it was challenging, as I’m sure it is for anyone working in the humanitarian sector. We work in a field that works with humans who are in their most fragile states. We see anger and tears, we hear frustrations, and we learn stories of struggles. Many of the agencies we work at have little resources and the staff is over-worked. The missions of these agencies and the populations we work with test our values of compassion, forgiveness, and social justice. We learn the importance of human relationships, and are reminded that the dignity and worth of every person should be honored and recognized, but sometimes even that can be challenging to remember.
But there are also stories of hope. There are those moments that make working in this field worthwhile. After completing my first year with the Mentoring Program, the mother of a 6th grader girl I had mentored all school-year hunted my AmeriCorps site supervisor down to let her know I had made an impact on her daughter’s life. She informed us that the mentoring program was one of her favorite activities in school. That news came as a shock to me. Every week while I met with her daughter, I wondered if she even wanted to be there. I could never tell. Her body language sometimes suggested she was uncomfortable or bored. Sometimes she would not even look me in the eye. Once in awhile, I would get a smile out of her and there were a few times when she really lit up. Once was when I took her shopping for art supplies. Afterwards, we each made a collage depicting the important people in our lives. I was glad to know that all the time I spent with this young girl had made a difference.
As a struggling student, the AmeriCorps program helped me feel rewarded pursing this line of work. Not only because I was given an educational stipend, but also because I learned of the impact our work has on our communities. Through our various AmeriCorps service placements, we help others to realize the potential that is within themselves to overcome obstacles and achieve the goals that they desire. We can’t always see it. It doesn’t come in any tangible form like a shiny gold star for getting an A+ on a math test, but it is there. By practicing an ethic of service and extending a helping hand, you can make a difference in the lives of others, even when you are not aware you are doing so. My experience with the mentoring program guided me to this truth. So, on those days when I can’t remember why I want to still call myself a social worker, I remember this experience and will always be grateful to AmeriCorps for giving it to me. Oh yeah, and for also letting me eat a little bit better than top ramen every night of my grad school career.