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How I used my Segal Education Award to travel

Brenna poses with two classmates. They're all wearing their hiking backpacks. In the background we see a herd of zebra.

City Year AmeriCorps and the Segal Education Award

One of the benefits of serving with City Year is earning a Segal Education Award through AmeriCorps. Upon completion of our program, AmeriCorps members receive $6,895 to help pay for college and deepen their own professional learning. The award can be used in a variety of ways. A few years after I served, many of my friends were using their awards to pay for graduate school, but I still had no plan for how I wanted to use my Segal Education Award. Then, I heard about an amazing way I could use my award to travel and gain cultural experiences in a place I'd long wanted to visit: Africa.

I'd been curious about African wildlife for decades and when I learned that an East African excursion offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) includes a safari, I immediately fell in love. I chose a one-month trip in Tanzania that was designed for participants 23 and older.

NOLS is a global nonprofit school that offers wilderness and leadership education in locations around the country and the world. As a participant, you hike and camp in the backcountry, while taking leadership opportunities on your team and changing the way that you see and interact with nature and the environment around you. I learned about NOLS from another City Year alum who used his award to become certified in Wilderness Medicine.

How I chose my NOLS program

NOLS offers a variety of courses and trips all over the world for high school students, college students and post-grads. Trip lengths can range anywhere from two weeks to a school year. The admissions advisors at NOLS picked up the phone any time I needed them to answer my questions and they helped me pick the best course for myself. Throughout my trip preparation, they were also there to answer questions about anything from my travel visa to what gear and supplies I'd need.

Why NOLS? The Culture

When researching international trips, it was important to me that the program I picked practice cultural competency. Any time we visited a new community with a local guide, we respected the cultural norms of that community. We were there to learn about Tanzania from local people, not to create change in communities that were not our own. I appreciated that two of my three NOLS instructors were local; one of my instructors was Maasai, which is an ethnic group that comes from an area of Tanzania and Kenya, and another was from Kenya. One of the participants on my trip was also local and this excursion was one of many pieces of training for him to be a future trip leader. Two local guides also accompanied us on different parts of the trip; our guides were members of or spoke the language of every community we visited.

Using my Segal Education Award to Travel

I chose my shorter trip, in part, because it was affordable. If you choose to pursue a year or a semester, NOLS will now match your Segal award, up to $2,000!  Now that NOLS matches your award, it may be much more feasible for you to go on a semester-long trip.

Don't forget, though, that you'll need to pay taxes on your Ed award, so I recommend using your award in a year where you know you'll be getting a tax refund, to offset the cost. I broke about even.

NOLS taught me perseverance

Like my City Year experience, NOLS gave me the patience to face new challenges with spirit. I made my way through the backcountry following game trails made by animals and got within a dozen feet of some of them. I learned about Tanzanian culture, history and the environment, and practiced basic Swahili. I tried bee pollen and larvae, a great source of protein. We roasted food cooked over a bonfire with local community members. I listened to hyenas pad quietly around my tent at night. I visited both rainforests and deserts and saw the Southern Cross below the equator. I hiked into and out of a giant crater full of flamingos and learned how to protect my things from being stolen by sneaky, rainbow-colored monkeys. I visited historical sites like Olduvai Gorge, went on a safari, and hiked around an active volcano. And I did all of this with a 50-60 lb. bag on my back.

Of the nine participants in my group, seven of us were using an AmeriCorps award for the course. I was surrounded by other AmeriCorps alums, which made our group even closer. City Year's values of teamwork, inclusivity and service to a cause greater than self defined my experience.

Later in the trip, I got sick, but my team was there to carry some of my things, or carry me! While some of these things sound a little more comfortable than others, every moment I experienced showed me that I was stronger than I thought I was and gave me the confidence to explore new terrain at home, too. Since returning from the trip, I've been able to explore the mountains of Colorado and parts of Utah.

I'm thankful that my Segal Education Award enabled me to achieve a life-long dream and learn about a place and people I wanted to know better.

Brenna stands confidently with her hands on her hips. In the background is the Great Rift Valley and Ol Doinyo Lengai.
Ol Doinyo Lengai ("Mountain of God" in Maasai). Especially after getting sick, I was so proud to have finished this trip! This was taken in the Great Rift Valley on our last day.


Brenna is a Regional Admissions Manager in the Central region. She manages admissions at City Year Denver and City Year Tulsa, and formerly Dallas. She served her AmeriCorps year with City Year Boston.

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