When Teach for America (TFA) recruiters visited Knox College, Emily Putnam, ’10, didn’t intend to go to their presentation. According to Putnam, she only went because a friend interested in the program wanted company. Much to her surprise, however, Putnam fell in love with organization and its mission.
“The person who spoke about it was very passionate and informed,” Putnam said. “That kind of planted the seed for it.”
TFA and other service opportunities such as AmeriCorps are offering a different option for post-college graduates. Putnam was one of the over 3,000 “corps members” that TFA recruits each year to serve as teachers in low-income communities.
Sara Belger, ’10, chose to join AmeriCorps VISTA to gain more experience with public health and prepare for a career with non-profits.
“It was a good medium of not having to pay back student loans and not having to really enter into a real job,” she said.
Life in the corps
No matter their reason for applying, those who choose to enter public service face a diversity of experiences and challenges. Freshman Jacob Schneider, who completed ten months with the AmeriCorps NCCC program, spent time in New Orleans, Boston, Virginia and Camden, N.J. as part of his service.
“I’d never been to any of those places,” Schneider said. “It was an adventure.”
As part of his service, Schneider helped combat invasive river species, established community gardens in regions lacking access to produce and rebuilt houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
For Schneider, it was the relationships he built with both his fellow corps members and the people he was helping that made the experience worthwhile. Schneider recalled one instance when, at a local jazz show, he ran into the resident of the house his team had been working on.
“This guy didn’t have hardly a nickel to his name and he said, ‘Jacob! I can’t believe I’m seeing you here…come inside and I’ll buy you a beer!’ He paid despite my resistance,” Schneider said. “In some ways, I felt guilty accepting this sort of treatment, but really it was just his way of showing that he appreciated the sacrifice that we were giving to help people out.”
Putnam shared similar sentiments. Currently seven months into her two years of TFA, she teaches in a preschool classroom in Chicago. Her students have already nearly achieved their goals for the entire year, and several are reading at a first-grade level.
“It’s one thing to make someone feel good at the age of 16, but every experience before age five really impacts who you’re going to be at your core,” said Putnam. “When you see students growing and feeling successful, I feel like that’s the best part.”
Belger, whose service involves working for the Warren County Health Department, was enthused about how much the experience has already taught her.
“I’ve learned quite a bit about public health that I never would have been able to get outside [of AmeriCorps],” she said. “I’ve gotten everything from lead poisoning and hearing about all the different immunizations.”
However, both TFA and AmeriCorps came with challenges as well. Schneider noted that it could be frustrating to work with the bureaucracy of a government-run organization, something Belger agreed with.
“With AmeriCorps, it feels like there’s a lot of disconnect and lack of communication,” she said. “Anyone going into AmeriCorps needs to be aware of that.”
For Putnam, the most difficult part of the program was the reality of what some students went through outside the classroom.
“That was the biggest challenge—to realize I didn’t have control over certain things in their life and I could only do things I could do during the day,” Putnam said.
Belger faces challenges financially. AmeriCorps VISTA members are paid 5 percent below the poverty line of wherever they serve.
“They encourage you to apply for food stamps, they encourage to you apply for public aid. They don’t tell you that beforehand,” Belger said.
Both Putnam and Schneider expect their experiences to continue influencing them in the future. Putnam had been exposed to educational equality through some of her undergraduate experiences, but TFA helped solidify her ultimate career goals.
“I know no matter what I do I am going to stay in education,” she said. “My ideal action would be to work next for TFA to train teachers and then to go into policy work.”
Schneider also emerged from his service with a clearer picture of future plans.
“I think the program kind of cultivated a desire in me … to serve [my] community,” he said. “I’m contemplating, after I graduate, doing another term of AmeriCorps … and I’m even more interested than I was before in doing the Peace Corps.”
Putnam also stressed the need to be passionate about teaching or service before making a commitment, rather than treating it merely as an alternative to options such as graduate school.
“To tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem you have to come at it with insurmountable energy,” she said. “Don’t even try if you don’t have that fire in you.”
“It’s little baby steps. But at the same, hopefully it will be something larger for the whole community,” Belger said.