AmeriCorps Changes Lives – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

AmeriCorps Changes Lives

During the Appetizers with AmeriCorps panel discussion on Wednesday night, young alums and community members shared their stories of not knowing what to do after graduation and the life changing events that followed.

AmeriCorps is a national network of programs that engages more than 70,000 Americans each year in intensive service to meet critical needs in communities throughout the nation.  There are various levels of service, ranging from 300 hour summer programs to 17,000 VISTA programs that are full time placements for a year. The panelists represented a wide range of different AmeriCorps programs and levels of commitment.

Dubary Brea ’08 shared his experience working with AmeriCorps VISTA after graduation.  “Public service has definitely given me a lot of huge benefits. I learned how to write grants, I went to a lot of trainings that would make me more marketable going forward, and I made a lot of contacts in New York City.” The skills that Brea gained were articulated by other members of the panel throughout the evening. Valerie Edwin who works for Serve New York as a VISTA Leader explained that “I learned important skills like multitasking and how to really budget money.”

Learning to budget was an aspect of AmeriCorps that was an important part of the experience for all of the members of the panel. One of the aspects of AmeriCorps is that the stipend volunteers receive to live on is calculated based on the poverty level in the area in which they are serving. Many volunteers qualify for government services such as food stamps and Medicaid just like the communities that they are serving.  Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning Katie Flowers added that the numbers can be somewhat deceiving because of the varying education awards that can be used to help pay off loans or saved for up to seven years. “How many graduates are able to put $5,000 toward their student loans the first year out of college? Most will not, so in the end things work out to be roughly comparable especially once you figure in the marketability of the skills volunteers gain,” she said.

Many members of the panel also spoke to the challenging aspects of AmeriCorps service. Rachel Sumner ’08 spoke about the challenges of working with the Bureau of Land Management and the Student Conservation Association as a firefighter for a summer. “You really have to learn how to approach people who have different goals and see where they are coming from so you can work together to do things like decrease the likelihood their house is going to catch on fire,” said Sumner.

Linsey Dolgos ’02 spoke about her time in one of the most well known AmeriCorps programs Teach for America, working with first graders on their reading skills. “It was overwhelming at first,” she explained. “But ultimately it taught me that I could do anything and perseverance is key.”

Other panelists such as Michael Austerlitz ’10, who served at AmeriCorps VISTA Legal Assistance of WNY,  and Gideon Porter ’12, who interned with City Year, spoke to the challenge of adjusting to life after college and to the huge amount of autonomy that AmeriCorps volunteers are entrusted.

In the end AmeriCorps altered the life of every panel participant in some major way. Brea is going to Cornell to get a master’s degree in developmental policy; Dolgos stayed in Phoenix, teaching for three more years after her term was over; Austerlitz plans to get a master’s at Cornell in educational advocacy. Carolyn Kwiatkowski, from the Catholic Charities Service Corps in Buffalo, N.Y., was hired after doing a year of service with Catholic Charities.

Questions about volunteer opportunities or AmeriCorps in particular can be answered at the Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning in Trinity Hall, phone: (315) 781-3825 or by e-mail at serve@hws.edu.