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Everyone deserves an education: why I serve with City Year Chicago

A year of service—what does that even mean? Looking into what a year of service is, I think digging into City Year’s culture is important, particularly the “Why I Serve” statement. This statement’s purpose is to find the underlying reason and motivation for why each of us decided to dedicate a year of our lives to working not only with others, but for others. These statements range in length and personal detail, but they all inspire the individual through their days of service.

When I asked a few of my fellow teammates what a year of service means to them. I received many different answers.

Kavhawn Swopes, who serves in a 4th-grade class, said that service is, “giving back to the community from which you came.”

Juliet Cangelosi, who serves 5th-grade students, said that service is, “loving people toward opportunity and encouraging them to be their best selves; it is a compassionate heart and mind put into action.”

I serve because I believe that everyone deserves the right to an education. I serve to support and instill a sense of belief in my students that they are capable of greatness, because they are capable of greatness. I serve because of Kyra, the little girl in Swaziland, Africa whom I had the privilege of tutoring for a summer, who I miss every day, and who inspired me. I serve because I want to inspire others in the same way that she inspired me.

To be completely transparent, this year is anything but easy, and there are days in which we need reminders of what we are doing here; some days we may feel as though we are not making the difference or impact that we went into this year intending to make. Some days a year of service may feel like an incredibly long time. It is on these days that our “why I serve” statements become essential to maintaining our positive attitude and mindset toward service.

I went into this year expecting to see the dramatic impact of my work, and I unrealistically expected to see it almost instantly. I expected to excel at the work, whether that was through creative lesson planning, managing behavior check-ins, attendance goal setting or nurturing relationships with each of my students. Now, seven months into this experience, I am still frustrated from time to time when I don’t see an immense improvement in my students, or when I feel that my students do not like me.

It has taken me seven months to focus on the small joys of each day, and to remind myself that change doesn’t happen overnight. I am- and my students are- still working on it every day. For example, Thursday morning, all six of my attendance focus list students met their goal and that in itself is an accomplishment to be celebrated.

A City Year alumnus who also served at Dulles articulated this experience well when he said, “in the fall, you have no idea what you are doing.  Around January, you finally start to get the hang of what you’re doing, and by the spring, you’re in the swing of it. Even still, you may have a rough morning, or a bad afternoon-it happens. Don’t let that get you down or define you.”

This work is challenging, it is meant to stretch us and push us. We talk so often about the growth of our students, but what we forget to notice in the process is the growth we also experience. For many of us, this may be one of our first professional work experiences. We are thrown into a setting where we serve sun up to sun down with the same eight or more team members. We learn to communicate with our teammates and utilize their strengths. We learn to persevere and cope with the reality of the environments in which we serve, and occasionally struggle through the injustice we witness. It truly is an incredible process that I often forget to acknowledge.

I have learned to take in this year of service one day at a time. Each day has its own challenges and also its own beautiful joys, no matter how small they may be. I am learning to take each day in stride, find the positives of each day, and go home at the end of a long 10-hour day to recharge however I can because tomorrow is another day with more challenges and joys. Regardless of where I see the impact at the end of this year-in my students, in the school, in my team, in myself—I know that this service is a stepping stone to make better happen, and that is why I serve.

Service may mean something different to everyone, but whatever it means, it was an important enough definition to bring all of us to Chicago this year to work in Chicago Public Schools.

Sarah Divney is a City Year Chicago AmeriCorps member serving on the Chicago Transit Authority team at the Dulles School of Excellence in the Greater Grand Crossing community of Chicago.

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