So, I know this question is asking me about what I didn’t expect to learn in my service year, and I promise that I will answer that question.  But here’s the thing: I have this feeling that giving some context to my City Year experience will enhance my answer to that question.  It will also help me to gather my thoughts along the way.

Finding a passion has always been a struggle for me.  When I was studying at Indiana University, I was undecided (or as IU calls it, “exploratory”) in my major for the first two years.  I did not want to commit myself to any fields until I had tried everything that interested me.  That’s a big issue for me: too many things interest me!  I tested the waters in SO MANY subjects before I finally landed in sociology at the beginning of my junior year, and I only declared a major then because I was not allowed to be exploratory as a junior.  For the rest of my time at IU I questioned if I had made the right decision.  I don’t question that anymore.

Studying sociology gave me a lot to think about.  Someone in Jacksonville’s corps recently described it as “psychology for society” and I find that description to be really apt.  It provided me with the “sociological perspective” and made me question why the things that are happening in the world are happening.  It also helped me to understand why people are the way that they are, especially people who are very different from me.  When I graduated from IU in May of 2016 with a degree in Sociology and minors in History, French, and Social Welfare advocacy I had just recently confirmed that I would begin my City Year experience in Jacksonville in the summer.

My first year of City Year was great for me.  I worked in a sixth-grade math classroom at an elementary school, and I loved working with children.  I was seeing a lot of the stuff I had learned about in college first hand in the communities that we serve here in Jacksonville, and while I am thankful for the education I received at IU, there’s a HUGE difference between learning about concepts in a lecture hall and actually witnessing them in person.  Not the most shocking realization, I know, but it certainly is an important one.  My first year of service was a powerful experience for me, and at the end of that first year I decided to apply for a second one, this time as a Team Leader.

I remember when I accepted the TL position, I asked myself what I was getting myself into, but in that moment, I really felt certain that I knew what I was in for.  I mean, I had done it for a whole year already!  Sure, my position was changing, but would that really change the experience THAT much?  Year two was going to be just like year one!

I could not have been more wrong.

To tell the truth, when I had accepted the TL position I wasn’t sure that I had grown enough from the experience and I had a lot of doubts about if I was ready for the leadership role.  I was also pretty nervous about my new students.  I was moving from an elementary to a high school, and at the time that seemed like going from one end of the spectrum to the other.  When I was working with sixth-graders it was hard for me to imagine categorizing high schoolers as “children” but my tenth-grade students instantly reminded me of the ones I had the year before.  They face a lot of the same challenges in the classroom, and I found myself able to help them just as well.  Sure, high school math is a little tougher, but I quickly found my groove. 

Meeting my students at Raines High School was one of the first and biggest reliefs that I had for this new role.  And it was huge!  But work in the classroom only feels like 1/3rd of the work that TL’s have.  A lot of the team leader’s role involves supporting & leading the people who serve alongside you in your school, and that idea was nerve-wracking for me as well.  This was my first legitimate leadership role and I had no idea how it would go.  What if I hate my team?  What if I don’t know the answers to their questions?? What if I need help???  Spoiler alert – I love my team to death.  But these are concerns that I had during the summer training before my second year, and they are challenges that I have had to confront during my second year.  Confronting these challenges has what helped me to realize how I’ve grown.

Ben and the Raines High School team along with their sister team, Ribault High School 

I don’t think this is something that is unique to our team, but I do think this is an aspect of our work that is unique to CYJAX.  Everyone in the CYJAX community works hard to make our organization feel like just that – a community.  As someone who has moved far from home to do this work, that has been a really great thing.  The support system and friendships that I’ve gained working here are some of the closest and most important ones that I have.  As a team leader, I’ve leaned on my school team, from my Impact Manager, my senior corps family and the CYJAX staff for so much and the fact that they have been there to celebrate with me my highs and support me through my lows has meant the world.  I’m sure they were there and willing to do that for me last year, but I never felt comfortable with being vulnerable, asking for help or admitting that I did not know the answer.  Even as a child this was something I struggled with in school, and it stuck with me until this most recent service year.  The fact that I am willing to do that now tells me either that I have matured while working in this organization and learned that it is okay to be vulnerable in front of people or that this organization is just that great and I feel this comfortable because of how wonderful the people that work with me are.  I like to think that both are the case.

Another thing I have learned during my City Year experience that I think will stick with me for the rest of my life is the power of outwardly appreciating another person.  It is so validating to be appreciated by people that you admire and work with, and a well thought out appreciation can be a bright moment that they return to and remember for a long time.  City Year’s way of making appreciating others a norm has made me reflect a lot on what others do and have done for me, and that is a beautiful thing.  As someone who can at times be described as a “whirlwind” or “scatter-brained,” this has had a huge impact on my life.

“You get out of it what you put into it” is a lesson that CY proves to me every day of service.  Here’s the thing about that lesson, though: the important part of it isn’t that you get something out of it.  What’s important is that you put anything in it to begin with!  In CYJAX’s case I’ve found that if you put love & care into the community, you’ll get it in return.  These past two service years have taught me so much about myself, what my goals and passions are.  They’ve caused me to grow in so many ways, and our work continuously shows me where I still can grow.  It makes me WANT to grow.  I may be young and may not have had a lot of work experience, but I do know that I’d be really hard-pressed find a workplace that feels like this much of a family and that invests so much in me both as a professional and as a human.  I can’t wait to continue to grow with this organization.


Ben Cummins
AmeriCorps Team Leader, Raines High School
City Year Jacksonville 

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