This January, a group of City Year alumni, including City Year’s national alumni advisory board co-chairs Nellie Tsai (San Jose/ Silicon Valley ’05, ’06) and Stef Vestal (Providence ’06, Washington, DC ’07) participated in the 13th annual alumni service weekend in Orlando, Florida. While Orlando’s warm and sunny location was certainly a draw when deciding the location of this year’s trip, being of service remained the driving factor for this group, along with reinforcing the power of the alumni fellowship.
Along with completing two service projects, City Year alumni met with current City Year Orlando AmeriCorps members and visited a public school where these AmeriCorps members serve every day.
According to a 2018 national survey, City Year’s remarkable alumni, now a network 30,000 strong, are taking on leadership roles in communities where they live and work, making significant contributions as innovative leaders who can mobilize diverse groups to tackle complex challenges across a range of professional fields. Check out this Q&A to get to know Stef and Nellie and read some of their post-Alumni Service Weekend reflections.
Where did you serve with City Year? What are you doing professionally now?
Stef Vestal (SV): I served both with City Year Providence and City Year DC and was on staff in DC for a few years. I still live in the DC area and teach seventh grade history and am a high school field hockey coach. My City Year experience greatly inspired my interest in continuing my career in education and I am so grateful to be able to invest in student success through my role.
Nellie Tsai (NT): I served with City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley for two years as an AmeriCorps member, and then I joined their staff for two years. I currently live in Detroit, Michigan where I am the civic and community engagement director for the Michigan Nonprofit Association. I get to work with organizations around the state in helping them activate and organize community volunteers and grassroots efforts around democracy issues.
You’ve both been on a few different alumni service weekend trips? What keeps you coming back?
SV: Alumni service weekend started as a response to disaster relief in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In later years, we decided to branch out to other areas, visiting Dallas last year and now Orlando. Over the years, the group that comes together for this trip has become extremely close. We are united in our love for service and idealism that the things we accomplish over these few days have positive ripples that extend throughout the year.
NT: While this was my first Alumni Service Weekend, I have participated in a number of service project with fellow alumni since my time with City Year. Through each service day I’ve attended, I’ve learned more about the needs of that specific community and how we are providing direct support through the activities we participate in. This is a unique way to reconnect to the things that drew me to City Year in the first place and remind me of the impact that community investment can have. As alumni, we always say we’re “leaders for life.” This is one concrete way I know I’m fulfilling that promise.
What was unique about service in Orlando? What are some of the needs of the Orlando community?
SV: When people think of Orlando, they think of the amusement parks, warm climate and perhaps not much more. I learned that the Orlando community has neighborhoods within one mile of each other that experience differing life expectancies, due to poverty; that inequality is often unseen by tourists. I’m so impressed to see the City Year team on the ground, making sure students have the supports they need.
NT: Likewise! Getting to know City Year staff and their stellar group of AmeriCorps members was amazing. They are making real one-to-one connections as tutors, mentors and role models, making sure students have the skills to succeed and thrive. I’m so proud to be an alumna in those moments, when I hear stories about student progress and how they are deepening their connection to the school environment.
Why is national service still so meaningful to you? What’s some advice you would share with the City Year alumni community?
SV: City Year changed the course of my career. I was planning to go to law school and I'm a teacher now because of City Year. Because of my positive experience, I want to stay involved and a part of advancing national service and education. As far as advice, I would say, the alumni network has a ton of great events and initiatives happening across the country that range from mentoring City Year AmeriCorps members to happy hours/networking events. Making friends as an adult is hard. With City Year, you’ll always have a built-in network.
NT: My City Year journey was amazing and taught me so much and national service is transforming communities every day. I will always want to be a part of that! My advice would be to seek out the alumni network in your community. If you don't know how to do that, reach out to your local site point, alumni board chair or the National Alumni Team. Make sure your contact information is updated on the website or with your site! Alumni communities are always looking to be in touch with as many alumni as they can. They are always looking for new ideas and opinions about how to best serve the alumni in all areas.