Start Your Career or Serve Your Country?
Today’s guest blog is written by Raffi Wineburg. Raffi is a 2015 AmeriCorps NCCC north central region alumnus. He currently lives and works in Boston, MA.
It was an unusually warm, sunny November day in Manhattan when I received my first job offer. I stood outside my soon-to-be office in a short-sleeved button-up and turned my head to the sky. I smiled as two years of post-college job anxiety simply melted away.
The weather turned for the worse when I returned to the office the following week. The building looked very bleak through a gray veil of fog and rain. I’ll always remember that final image of my could-have-been office. I buzzed myself in and turned down the job.
Later that week, I cleared out of my Harlem brownstone and flew to Vinton, Iowa (population 5,000) to begin 11 months of national service as a Team Leader for AmeriCorps NCCC.
It was the hardest decision I’d ever made: start a career or serve my country. The offer on the table wasn’t just any old job, mind you, but my dream job—being a full-time reporter in New York City.
Hard decisions offer a rare opportunity to look beyond material factors like money, comfort and stability. They allow us to consider deeper questions like,
Who am I? What do I believe in? Where do I stand?
It was unclear which of my two options would have led to greater wealth, status or any other traditional measure of success. So I threw these considerations to the wind and simply took a stand: I’m with service.
The next year in AmeriCorps NCCC was perhaps the most impactful and inspiring time of my life. Together with my team, I traveled the Midwest – shacking up in different communities, engaging in some of our country’s most pressing issues and learning in ways I never imagined possible.
In Coon Rapids, Iowa, I set fire to the earth. I watched flames eat their way through prairie grasses, turning whole acres black in an instant, as if the night had suddenly fallen out of the sky.
In Flint, MI, I saw a country I didn’t recognize. On some city blocks, in-between two decaying homes there would simply be a pile of rubble where the neighbors’ house had burned down, giving the impression of a rotting mouth with missing teeth.
In Willow River, MN, I laid in a bunk and listened to pre-adolescent boys escalate into hysteria as they shared their hopes and dreams: to beat LeBron James in a game of 1-on-1, to have five houses and 10 girlfriends, to be Spiderman, to cure AIDS.
After that, they all fell silent. It was a camp for children infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Throughout my service year, I felt as if I had swallowed some magic bean of infinite potential. I carried a feeling that anything was possible, that I was constantly on the cusp of something incredible. It was only when my service year ended that I realized the incredible thing on the horizon was now behind me.
The reason I value writing (thus the reason why turning down my job offer was so difficult) is because it forces me to define and articulate my beliefs. There’s less at stake when you’re talking politics at the dinner table, or yelling at the talking heads on cable news because your thoughts and opinions are fleeting. Not so with writing. Your truth lasts on ink and paper, or on typeset and fiber optics, for all to see.
Even so, there’s a certain amount of distance you can have with writing. Just like how, when I was in college, I wrote papers about democracy then forgot to vote. Service, like writing, allows you to define your truth, only it narrows this distance. Through lifting, laboring, sweating, teaching and learning, your service itself pronounces your beliefs. If you work hard every day, you end up with a perfect, final draft.
Through writing I’ve tried to hone in on my own version of ‘good’. But life is hard. I now work full-time, and my scope becomes intensely narrow as I cycle through the same weekly motions: morning coffee, daily commute, meetings, etc. I can’t or don’t always do the things I’ve claimed are good like volunteering, engaging politically or remembering to call my parents on weekends. But at least AmeriCorps taught me how to do these things (maybe not the last one). It produced a version of myself that I can look back on as a role model, and aspire to become.
There’s a line in the AmeriCorps pledge that continues to resonate with me, “Faced with apathy, I will take action.”
More than anything, this sums up what it means to serve. Service translates the spirit that we care about one another, as fellow Americans and humans, into action. Because to act is to care, and caring is the opposite of apathy.
What would it be if we could all serve and care just a little more?