How national service organizations help graduates find their way
America’s education system: a shiny bubble-wrapped, predestined package that includes undergraduate and graduate studies. Then, the moment the diploma hits our palm, we break out of the box like a chick from a shell as we step out into the world to start the job search, and to start making our millions. It’s a good plan, a great one even. But what if we don’t know what we want to do?
Some enter a state of limbo, located somewhere between college and a career. Graduates who feel unsure about what to do next are increasingly turning to two popular national organizations, AmeriCorps and Teach for America. Developed in 1993 and 1989, respectively, AmeriCorps averages at about 85,000 volunteers annually and Teach for America accepted about 5,200 students this year. These organizations allow graduates time to learn more about themselves and what they want to do, while still being able to “get things done,” as the AmeriCorps member pledge states.
After graduating from St. Bonaventure University in 2008, Katherine Rogers was one of these graduates who felt unsure about exactly what she wanted to do. Rogers’ ideas ranged from the Peace Corps to graduate school, but she had a stronger inclination toward service. The prospect of a year volunteering with an AmeriCorps sponsored, faith-based community volunteer program called MercyWorks was her perfect middle ground. At the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago, a residential treatment center for young adults, Rogers taught teens how to volunteer, write résumés, shake hands, how to get jobs and maintain them.
All of Rogers’ energies were devoted to service, especially because Rogers lived at Mercy Home.
“You’re living for others that entire year, 24/7, so I got the entire experience of service,” she said.
After her year was up, Rogers decided to stay put, accepting a position at Mercy Home in order to continue her service.
Kate Tkacik graduated from St. Bonaventure University with Rogers and found herself in a similar situation, so she applied for AmeriCorps.
“I’d started working with a kid through a vocational internship through my college, and it called on strengths and passions I didn’t know I had,” Tkacik said. “It got me all fired up about the systems these kids get stuck in. I wanted to help.”
Tkacik became a tutoring coordinator in the Learning Center at Mercy Home, working to match kids who needed educational support with volunteer community members. Tkacik found her calling, and still works as a Learning Center coordinator.
Tkacik said getting kids to read more is her greatest accomplishment, and that working for money will never be her motivation.
Tkacik said, “If you aren’t doing service work, you shouldn’t be working.”
Sarah Coon, a 2001 graduate from George Washington University, did not know how she wanted to contribute to the education system, but she always had in mind the goal of opening and running camps for high-risk kids. Coon thus decided to join the ranks of Teach for America after earning an undergraduate degree.
“It sounded like a good opportunity to learn about education,” she said.
Coon taught in a first grade classroom in San Jose, Calif. The majority of her students were Mexican immigrants who had very low English skills.
“Some of them didn’t know the alphabet coming into my class,” Coon said. “So for them to leave reading full books was really exciting.”
Her rewarding Teach for America experience ultimately led Coon to a job in education. She now works in a district office for a network of charter schools in New York and Connecticut.
Jenny Pickett, a 1998 graduate from Ithaca College, left IC feeling lost as to what to do in the professional world. As a Habitat for Humanity enthusiast, Pickett liked the idea of working for Habitat sponsored by AmeriCorps.
“I realized that I had been involved with Habitat all four years and that I enjoyed it,” Pickett said. “So when I heard about the program it seemed like a good way to bide my time to figure out what I wanted to do. I loved it.”
After her first year of service Pickett willingly signed on for a second year.
“I just felt like there was need in this country,” said Pickett. “For me it didn’t make sense to go elsewhere when I knew I could make a difference here.”
Pickett later landed a job at Ithaca College, coordinating the reparation of residence buildings. Pickett said it’s a job that her Habitat background makes her well suited for — one that she never thought existed.
Stepping outside of the norm and exploring our options after college appears to be one way to find ourselves and decide where we fit into the job market. Devoting our precious post-graduate time to service may not be conventional, but it helped these four women, as well as thousands of their peers discover their professional selves.
Kerry Tkacik is a junior journalism major who will help change the nation after graduation. Email her at ktkacik1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.