What AmeriCorps Taught Me: Finding Yourself Vs. Creating Yourself
Today’s guest blog comes from Eli N. Goldman, a four-time AmeriCorps veteran of Bonner Community Scholars at The College of New Jersey, City Year, and a two-term VISTA. Eli is now working towards his master’s of public administration at Rutgers – Newark while looking for a career that aligns with his passion for creating a social impact. Follow along with him on Twitter (@EliNGoldman) and LinkedIn.
I believe that people working for the common good is what made this nation strong. That is why I joined AmeriCorps and served 4 years for a total of 5 assignments in three states on both coasts of the U.S. I wanted to do my part to help my country. However, I also was looking for something. I wanted to find myself.
One of the main selling points of AmeriCorps is the professional development. For me though an equally important aspect of it was the chance to grow as a person. AmeriCorps helped shape how I view the world and engage with others. I can’t say that I’d be who I am today without the experiences I had while serving.
When I joined City Year in 2011 I didn’t really have a firm idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I had just graduated from TCNJ, my first AmeriCorps term as a Bonner Community Scholar was over, I needed a job, and I was disillusioned with being a teacher.
What I did know though was that I was passionate about helping create social impact. I wanted to have a positive influence on people, my community, the nation and world. City Year, and its focus on ending the high school dropout crisis in America, provided that for me.
From 2012 – 2014 I served as a VISTA in the New York and San Francisco metropolitan areas. Anyone that has done VISTA knows how challenging it can be. Due to the rules of the program I wasn’t able to take a second job to supplement my income. I spent a lot of nights alone in my room, reading, writing, analyzing my mistakes and thinking about what I wanted my future to look like.
In California I’d bike 18 miles to work because I couldn’t afford a car and public transportation would eat away at my funds. I’d also bike for miles sometimes just to clear my head. These rides helped me to begin dealing with hard questions, some of which I had been avoiding, that I knew I was going to have to answer sooner or later.
During my time in AmeriCorps, especially my last term in California, I was framing my life and professional decisions as a journey to find myself. I was expecting to have an epiphany and afterwards just know who I am and what I wanted to do. I was sure I’d change over the years but after finding myself I’d have a greater sense of peace and stability in my life.
I came to realize though that this was the wrong way to look at things.
In Monterey, California I was walking along the boardwalk while on a break from my VISTA work. I was trying to figure out my next steps. I felt a lot of pressure to make the “right” decision about which jobs to pursue, what Masters program to apply for, should I move back to the east coast and more. I still didn’t believe I had found myself and was beginning to doubt that if I hadn’t done it by now I was never going to. Month’s prior I had also begun to feel that if I was going to have a successful and happy life my mindset needed to change.
Then I saw it. It was a neon pink bumper sticker. It said, “Don’t Find Yourself, Create Yourself.” I realize having a moment from seeing a bumper sticker is a little ridiculous but for me it just seemed as if the universe was trying to tell me something at that moment.
I now realize I had been approaching life and career decisions from the wrong perspective. I was never going to reach a “moment” where I knew exactly who I am. Even if I did, that person would inevitably change due to various circumstances and I’d be on the search once again. Life and careers aren’t static.
What I needed to do was re-frame my previous experiences and change how I viewed life going forward from that point. I decided that I must consciously pursue opportunities that corresponded with my passion for having a social impact. I needed to be deliberate. I needed to create my life and who I wanted to be, not look for it.
Coming to the realization that I am the one in charge and that there will be no one moment where I find out definitively who I am was a little terrifying. However, it also began to make me feel more empowered, stronger and confident than I ever had before. It gave me a sense of responsibility. Things weren’t going to just wait for me to find them or make them happen. I had to go out and do it.
We are all on some sort of journey. What AmeriCorps programs like City Year, Bonner and VISTA taught me though was that this journey is defined by what we want it to be and that there is no endpoint. While outside factors have an influence you are the one who largely decides how things can go. Creating yourself isn’t passive.
It is an active and ongoing process. We create our lives through our thoughts, actions and words. That is what AmeriCorps taught me and it is one of the greatest lessons I have learned so far.