Civic Engagement Beyond the University

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[photo by: scottchan]

Today's young adults are part of an extremely active generation. We are opinionated, vocal, passionate individuals who feel obligated and inclined to make a difference. Many college students do this through community service at their university, through social activism, community volunteering or tutoring, for example. It's refreshing to see that this call for service has been answered by so many when many areas of our community, locally and nationally are in need of support.

In addition to the assistance that these civically oriented students provide to their communities, civic engagement also benefits the provider as well. Sometimes the work they do during college can translate into career choices after graduation or as the next step toward finding a home for that spark for change ignited within them during college. Community work can be a very challenging experience and many college students are tested intellectually, mentally, emotionally and socially. What's great is that you're sure to come out stronger in the end.

When thinking about a career in social service, community support or social activism, there are challenging but also rewarding aspects of the work that are worth highlighting. Education is a great example. Teachers are part one of the most challenging professions, but are some the strongest individuals in our society because of it.

The University of Chicago produces many Teach for America (TFA) corps members. TFA is a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the education gap in low income communities across the United States, where children are not receiving proper schooling because of economic and social limitations. Current UChicago students can learn a lot from alumni who are in the program, not only if one is considering applying, but also as a sneak peek into social service and activism as a career.

Chloe Aaman, AB '10, is a current TFA corps member working at a public school in South Baltimore City, Maryland. Her work with 6-7 year old first graders has taught her a lot in terms of national education issues of course, but more broadly has built her character in ways she never imagined.

A Step toward Career Commitment

"I realized one day working with people is something I'd like to do, before I lock myself in another ivory tower for 6-8 years [of graduate school], and so I applied to TFA. I've never wanted to be a teacher before, nor is TFA a leisurely way to spend your time between undergrad and grad school, but somehow I ended up in Baltimore City and I'm committed to seeing this through."

Social service and activism is an enduring path. Those choose that route enter into an arena where every day is different than the next. It is a profession of patience and adaptability, but it can also be seen as an adventure which makes an appealing option. That curiousity and attraction to such a challenge even if you're not sure if it's the right path, might be the only warrant needed to begin that journey.

Chloe didn't go in with any expectations, other than to be challenged in news ways. She admits, "I expected, in other words, for the experience to defy all expectations. It has." Though this wasn't her calling per se, she's committed to its tasks, difficult or otherwise, unexpected or assumed. When thinking about civically and socially oriented work, expect trials but approach them as constructive challenges. Like Chloe, you will certainly be surprised by what you find.

Rewards Count

The biggest reward in social work is the impact you have on the community you're working with. Though it might be tough to recognize, effort does make a difference.

"Helping kids reach their "a-ha!" moments is extremely gratifying. By the same token, the kids will let you know if you've screwed up. They won't be shy about it, either!"

"All of my kids want to go to the University of Chicago, since it's one of the only universities they've heard of. I think I'll be writing many letters of recommendation down the road!"

Aaman's work produces benefits both ways. The children minds are opened and enlightened, but at the same time she also learns from them. This mutual relationship is a classic "pro" in community work and why so many are hooked once they begin. It's a great feeling.

It's Not About You

"Everything you do is done with someone else in mind--your success is defined by the success of twenty-seven roly-poly, whiny, hilarious, challenging six year olds."

Those who fight for communities in need of support put all their energy into the people they plan to have an impact on. When a student enters this environment after college, it calls even more sacrifice than before. Though that might seem daunting, the outcome of that sacrifice outweighs the worries one might have. Chloe's might spend every night, maybe even weekends, preparing classwork and activities for her students. She might not even have much time for herself, but her work is ensuring her students have a chance to succeed in life intellectually, socially and economically. For some, that's what keeps them going.

The Character Builder

"Every teacher has her dark days--the days students threaten her--the days young boys get into fistfights--the days babies come in with bruises--the days success seems impossibly far off--the days she doesn't sleep or have time to eat--the days she swears she'll quit and accept the cushy job that her education prepared her for. It requires a sureness of self that many of my peers (myself included) have had to pick up on the go, and it's an experience that's caused almost all of us to question our capacity for change and dedication."

Community service and social activism many times become a journey of self-discovery. But as Chloe mentions, it doesn't come without trials and challenges. It involves testing your beliefs, putting oneself in another's shoes and acting in sometimes uncomfortable situations for a greater good. Through these tests, social servants come out more sure of themselves, more sure of the philosophies and views on society and life. You come out stronger. Be prepared. More importantly, be excited.

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