by Eleanore Maclean, AmeriCorps member on the Bank of America team with Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School

When people ask me, “What is City Year?” I find it a deceptively hard question to answer. Measured in time, it’s 10 months encompassing at least 1,700 hours of service. But once you start to break down those 1,700 hours, the answer to “What is City Year?” gets more complicated.

I asked one of my third graders and she said, “City Years are helpers for the teachers and they help kids read. They cheer for us when we’re trying to do something. And my final thing is: they’re fun when you have lunch with them.” An eighth grader thought for a few minutes and then said, “A person who takes their time to take care of other people. City Year is really deep. If you were to disrespect a City Year that would be messed up.”

One staff member at Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School wrote that City Year is “a year long service program of volunteers with a selfless purpose of improving the lives of others, in a variety of community settings. Within schools, our City Year AmeriCorps members are young role models for our students who work tirelessly to improve and strengthen our school. They support, inspire, mentor, and basically step up to do anything that people ask them to do!”

I had a conversation with another teammate, about defining City Year before after school one afternoon. She responded, "How you would answer that changes throughout the year.”

I reflected on her question. In the beginning of the year, it’s this next chapter of your life when you’re thinking, 'I’m going to make all this change in the world, and I’m so excited to be a part of this." You don’t really know too much of what is involved, but you’re very idealistic and hopeful and excited. You’re making new friends, and it’s kind of like camp. And then it kind of changes. You start to say, “Oh wait, this is actually really hard. There’s a lot of work to do in City Year.” And then it becomes about building genuine student relationships. You understand what it means to connect to a child and to mentor a child and to be a part of the education system, and then you start learning more through your everyday service.

Eventually my teammate added, “There’s so much packed in–it’s this complicated, dense experience. I cannot believe it’s only been nine months. It has felt like so long, but I can’t believe it has been so short.”  

With that sense of time now at the forefront of my mind, I rephrased the question. I thought about my answer to “What is a City Year? (emphasis on the article).” I kept thinking about something we heard at the beginning of the year: the idea that a City Year is a sprint, not a marathon. Since we’re only serving for a year and there’s a succession of us, everyone’s running their fastest sprint, pouring their time and energy into their students and the team. You’re counting on the people in front of you and behind you to also run as fast as they can. Those before and behind you, in turn, are counting on you.

When I first started talking to my parents, who are both teachers, about applying to come back to City Year next year, they were supportive but also concerned about the stress and the work. They could see how hard this year was, too. I told them about the sprint metaphor, and I added that, in my mind, it’s a long sprint, a metaphorical 400m event–but it's also high-stakes relay. That knowledge has driven me to make sure that I’m running my leg of the sprint quickly, efficiently, and well.

Looking at all the definitions of a City Year that I came across while writing this article, they all talk about growth in one way or another. This year has helped me to grow up, to help my students grow and to be part of a team’s growth. I’m excited to catch my breath and then continue with the next leg of service as a team leader.

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