2018-09-21

I was extremely nervous the first time I walked into the crowded and rambunctious school cafeteria to help support student breakfast. It was the first day of school during my first year of service as a City Year AmeriCorps member and the first time I was going to be working with students.

What I quickly realized during that day was that I wasn’t the only one. The first day of school is an emotional time for everyone involved-- students, parents, teachers, and AmeriCorps members alike. Students are anxious to meet new people, excited to see old friends, and sometimes even hesitant to enter a new space; parents are anxious about their children making new friends and excited to see them thrive in a new environment; and AmeriCorps members are anxious to meet the students they will be working with for the next 10 months, excited to build relationships with the students and school staff, and ready to get started. Despite not knowing each other, we all had this combination of nervousness, excitement, and eagerness in common.

Looking back on it, I now know that the first day of school was the best example of what would be the soundtrack to the rest of my year. I saw everything – crying, yelling, and of course the infamous roast sessions. I initially joined City Year as a way to spend a gap year and hopefully strengthen my career prospects, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that I loved the energy of my students and school.

The first few days really do feel like you are just running around without really knowing what is going on, and you’ll soon discover that no two days are the same. But you will find some form of routine to keep you going every day, even if you can’t predict what the day will be like-- for me, it was breakfast and lunch support where we would make sure the students were following the rules and expectations, while also using it as a time and space to hang out with them outside of the classroom. I was able to interact with other students I wouldn’t normally be able to talk to in my class and were not in our afterschool program.

This routine was important to me and helped me walk into the school building every day with a purpose. Just going in with a singular mission alone each day is not enough, but determining your purpose will sustain and motivate you throughout the year.

Now a Team Leader serving my second year with City Year New York and coaching a team of five new AmeriCorps members through their first year of service, I took some time to reflect on what I learned from my first year.

Here are some of my personal ways to get (and stay) engaged and get the most out of your service year:

  1. Nervousness and excitement are the same thing. A lot of people are afraid of doing something because they are too nervous, but that energy can be channeled into excitement, which will ensure that something good comes out of the situation. Embrace the nerves and challenge yourself!

  2. How you approach a situation matters. There is nothing to gain from being a “negative Nancy.” Going into a situation with the mindset that it will be great is life-changing.

  3. Talking to students and adults is actually the same. This is sounds crazy I know. Kids are people too, there is no need to treat them any differently—all people respond positively to others taking an interest in their lives.

  4. Finding a common interest will go a long way. Small things like bonding over watching the same shows as students or any school staff is a great way to start a conversation. Don’t underestimate the power of TV to create bonds!

  5. Offer help, in any way that you can. This can be something as small as moving some desks around in a classroom, bringing a box upstairs for someone, or even holding something for someone in the hallway. Being kind goes a long way.

  6. Challenges aren’t inherently bad; they are opportunities. Challenges will inevitably arise in this work, but don’t let it stop you. Generate the energy to overcome them, and then use that energy to level up!

  7. Find ways to ground yourself. I know you have probably heard this a lot, but it’s true. I love walks and training martial arts after work… but I also love to color. To each their own!

  8. SNACKS! During the day, snacks are a life saver. You might be hangry or having a rough day, and what’s better than your favorite snack to cheer you up?

  9. Be authentic. Just being you will make a huge difference with your students, teammates, and everyone around you, and it makes everything easier too.

You’ve likely noticed that most of these tips focus on relationship building and interaction. Relationships are so important to success during a service year, working in a school, and even beyond City Year – collaborating and working on teams is a skill that’s important wherever you are, both in your career and life in general. This doesn’t mean that you need to transform into an extravert if you aren’t one-- take it from me. It’s about finding the balance of interacting in a way that makes you comfortable while remaining authentic.

This self-discovery, getting to know yourself and figuring out what you need to be successful, is something that will continue to benefit you for the rest of your life. For me, it was a great time to figure out what I like. I had never tried cheese nips before and LET. ME. TELL. YOU. I love those things, even just a small handful will give me a smile when I’m feeling a little down.

My first year of service was by far one of the best years of my life and is the reason I decided to serve a second year here. I know this year will bring even more opportunities, and I plan to bring everything I learn this year into whatever is next for me.

Remember to make the most of this year… you won’t regret it. You’ve got this!

Denny Torres Abad
Team Leader, PS 171Q

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