By Sharon Maes, City Year San Antonio Alum
Almost six years ago, I sat down to write two short essays for my City Year application, and today I decided to revisit those essays before writing this one. I was pleasantly surprised that I still fundamentally agree with several key ideas in those essays. I wrote about the importance of taking an interest in the character development of others, claiming I owed all of my own successes to anyone that had ever taken an interest in mine. Additionally, I had begun to tease out concepts regarding race‐ and class‐based privilege, recognizing that (through no virtue of my own) I had everything I needed for a happy and safe existence, while many others (through no fault of their own) might not. I cited these examples as reasons I felt compelled to serve with City Year.
Serving with City Year San Antonio after high school remains one of the best decisions I have made for myself. I worked with a small corps of forty‐five of the most motivated and talented people I had ever met. I learned a lot that year, specifically about being a professional member of an organization. It felt important to identify with thousands of other young people across the country, unified behind a common goal. I was proud of the organization and of the work we were doing, so it became easy to represent City Year in a positive way. I left at the end of my year of service, truly feeling as though I could succeed in anything that came my way. This feeling more or less turned out to be true. For starters, listing a year of full time national service on my college application caused me to be noticed by the Bonner Scholar program at DePauw University, and they reached out to me. Bonner had the exact framework I needed to put to use and continue to develop the skills I had gained in City Year. I spent the majority of my time as a Bonner Scholar at multiple sites in the community, such as a local pantry for non‐food items (like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.), the museum, and the public library. I also spent a summer at the International Institute in St. Louis where I worked with immigrants and refugees preparing for U.S. citizenship, as well as a semester at the Indiana Women’s Prison tutoring an introductory Spanish class. I continued to develop professional skills as a Bonner, and again left the program feeling prepared for success.
I can’t talk about my experiences with national service organizations these days without also talking about my equally invaluable college education. Majoring in Spanish and Conflict Studies at DePauw, I focused almost entirely on systemic inequalities, such as, incidentally, the inequalities that solicit the services of organizations like City Year and Bonner in the first place. In studying economic, gendered, and racial disparities that characterize our society, I acquired a framework to ask critical questions that I didn’t have while in these service organizations. Whereas my volunteer work focused on alleviating symptoms, classes taught me about structural sources of these problems. Deeper analysis begged the question of whether the goodwill of volunteers is sufficiently equipped to deal with such deeply rooted issues as the high school dropout rate or poverty or mass incarceration. I’m still searching for that answer, but for now I’m okay with balanced, holistic approaches that celebrate the principles of selfless service to others while still remaining informed about and critical of the root causes of these problems.
Today I am still motivated by those same ideas that I wrote about six years ago. I currently split my time between the higher education program at the Indiana Women’s Prison and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University—two jobs that allow me to continue to grapple with issues of privilege and systemic inequalities in our society while contributing directly and indirectly towards the personal development of others. I am immeasurably thankful for City Year, the Bonner Scholar program, and my university education, all of which gave me opportunities to encounter and learn from diverse groups of people, values and perspectives, leading me to where I am now.
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