Each year, College Possible celebrates AmeriCorps Week – a week designed to acknowledge and honor past and present service members’ commitment to their community. The work that AmeriCorps members do in their communities is invaluable and the sacrifices members make to do this work is admirable. The AmeriCorps experience is incredibly unique; it is simultaneously challenging, rewarding, enlightening and transformative. For many members, a term of service is a meaningful gap year, a launching pad for a next step or an opportunity to test-drive a certain career path.
At College Possible Philadelphia each year, 24 AmeriCorps members spend 10 ½ months investing in their city and themselves, often taking the experiences and skills they gain during their term of service into whatever their next step may be. During AmeriCorps week, four of our current and past College Possible Philadelphia members share their experiences of serving in Philadelphia and what the experience has meant to them.
Joining a mission-based organization was important for Mara Timmeney as she was planning her next steps after college graduation. She learned about College Possible through the National College Access Network (NCAN) and was drawn to the organization’s work. “What stood out to me about serving as an AmeriCorps member with College Possible was that I was going to be given more responsibilities than other entry-level positions I was researching,” says Mara. She accepted a position as a high school community partners team member in Philadelphia where she plans SAT practice tests, organizes service events and gives presentations about navigating the college process called College Prep Talks.
One moment that stood out to Mara was during a College Prep Talk, where College Possible Philadelphia partnered with the Pennsylvania Immigration Citizenship Coalition (PICC) to provide information about navigating the steps to college and providing resources to undocumented students. “When the Prep Talk was over, I asked the group of students what they learned,” says Mara. “Two students raised their hands and shared that before our presentation, they didn’t think they could continue their education after high school. I watched their educational path change over the course of the Prep Talk and is a moment I continuously reflect on.”
Serving as an AmeriCorps member has allowed Mara to make an impact in the community, while also preparing for her future. “College Possible has helped to guide and inform my next steps,” says Mara. “I want to continue being involved in community alignment efforts, and the skills I’ve developed and gained over my term of service have set me up for success.”
When a friend and role model spoke encouragingly about her experience serving with College Possible, Tyler Tolman saw the chance to take a meaningful gap year before pursuing graduate school by participating in service that aligned with his own values. “I went to a remarkable college, and I think every student deserves higher education access and success,” says Tyler. He accepted a role as a high school senior coach at Jules E. Mastbaum AVT High School and Murrell Dobbins CTE High School.
In his role, Tyler helps students navigate the college application process and assists students in applying for financial aid and scholarships. Recently, he wanted to take a moment to celebrate his students and all of their hard work. Tyler and his students shared snacks, participated in team-bonding activities and discussed their excitement for college, the difficulties of high school and each student’s growth. “We created a rejuvenating environment for students to voice their aspirations and acknowledge their achievements,” he says.
Tyler’s service experience changed his outlook on his next steps. “I originally came to College Possible thinking that I would pursue graduate studies immediately afterwards, but my experience here has helped illuminate the need to maintain a critical balance between theory and practice,” he says. “I believe that to be a great educator, as well as a great academic, I should welcome more ‘real life’ experiences before I pursue a PhD.” Currently, Tyler is deciding between pursuing an offer from Teach for America – Greater Philadelphia or accepting a Fulbright Award to Thailand, a choice he describes as being “difficult but exciting.”
For LaShanda Woodard, deciding to commit to a second term of service as an AmeriCorps member made sense. “AmeriCorps gives you the chance to find yourself,” says LaShanda. “You have a year to give back and focus on your passions.” After completing her first term of service with Great Oaks Charter School in Delaware, LaShanda returned to Philadelphia to give back to her community by serving as a coach for seniors at Penn Wood High School with College Possible Philadelphia.
Before becoming an AmeriCorps member, LaShanda knew she wanted to work with students but didn’t know in what capacity. “I’ve learned that I like being in a school setting, interacting directly with students because of my service experiences,” she says. One particular moment that stands out to her was with a group at the start of her term of service. “After my first session, four girls stayed and talked to me about my college experience. It was exciting to see how interested they were in wanting to be a part of College Possible and that they were invested as much in having a good year as I was.” With each session, students continue to inspire and motivate her. “There are jobs where you won’t see the impact of your work right away; being a coach is special. It is very gratifying to see students want something, work for it and then obtain it.”
Through her two terms of service, LaShanda has built up a strong set of skills. “I’ve learned how to manage relationships with staff, students and families, strengthened my project management skills and how to work better with a team to accomplish tasks.” With a better understanding of her interests and skills, LaShanda feels more confident in achieving her goals.
Calvin Trisolini was eager to begin serving as a transition coach for College Possible Philadelphia in January 2018. “Serving with College Possible provides me the opportunity to participate in my community,” he says. “It also gives me the chance to critically examine my relationship with the education system at-large and my role in improving it.” As a transition coach, Calvin is responsible for helping students to navigate the transition between high school and college.
Leading up to his first interactions with students, Calvin felt a mixture of excitement and nerves. “I was initially nervous to talk to students who might have expectations for my behavior, professionalism and knowledge,” he says. Those worries were lifted when he visited each school and began building relationships with the students he met. “I quickly began laughing with students and getting to know their stories.”
The trainings and peer support he has received have also been incredibly beneficial. “College Possible has prepared me with the resources I need and empowered me to execute my role in my own way and with confidence,” he says. As Calvin thinks about his next steps, he has a goal he wants to achieve. “I aim to leave College Possible with a deeper understanding of what it means to work on complicated socio-political issues from a position of privilege.”
After college, Zach Sheppard planned to become a music or band director for a high school. While searching for jobs, he came across a college coach position for College Possible Philadelphia. “The role sounded like a great opportunity to help other first-generation students overcome the same barriers that I faced [as a first-generation college student],” reflects Zach, who served as a college coach during the 2015-16 academic year.
Zach credits his term of service with helping to shape his career path. “I didn’t see nonprofits as a viable career path,” he says. “Growing up I was never directly exposed to programs like College Possible and the impact they have.” After spending a year as a recruiter, he returned to College Possible Philadelphia in the fall of 2017 as a program coordinator. “I fully believe in College Possible’s mission. Your family’s finances shouldn’t determine how far you go in education and in life,” says Zach. “College Possible is doing important work to close the degree divide and to break generational cycles of poverty for a lot of people. The work has become important to me.”
In his role as program coordinator, Zach supervises AmeriCorps members and helps them navigate their service year. “I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” says Zach. “During my check-ins, I make sure to talk through challenges, concerns and any positive things that happened throughout the week. I also make sure that my Corps members are making a plan for their next steps for a successful future.”
By Ian Reitz