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March 9, 2017

Why I serve: fostering cross-cultural connections

I fell into service at university. I wish I could say it was more intentional, but in reality it was initially self-serving—a way to connect with others before it was a service to others. I started volunteering for an organization called AIESEC whose mission truly inspired me. AIESEC provided an avenue to break down cultural, religious, and social barriers through a professional work abroad program. I had the opportunity to serve with AIESEC full time for a year, earning a whopping $600 a month, a feat my parents were not overly impressed with. At the time I thought, “This is only for a year” and threw myself into the experience with every ounce of energy I possessed.

After I graduated, I moved to Egypt to start my own journey of cultural immersion. It was challenging, inspiring, educational, demanding, and above all, life-changing. For the next four years I served in the Middle East growing and supporting AIESEC’s work. I led a team to expand AIESEC into Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman and focused heavily on US-Middle East exchanges in a post 9/11 world. I wanted everyone to see this part of the world with the same awe and appreciation I did.

I remember vividly being stopped at immigration on a trip back to the United States. The officer examined the stamps that covered my passport and asked “What do you do for a living?” I told him (with great enthusiasm) I was facilitating an exchange program between the United States and the Arab world that would foster cultural understanding and respect. He told me that I was not doing a very good job.

AIESEC’s expansion into the Middle East allowed hundreds of exchanges to take place. Countless lives and communities forever impacted by what they saw, learned, and shared. This was not in spite of the negativity or skepticism; it was because of it.

When I came back to the United States, I knew I wanted to continue working for an organization that provided experiences to young people that would shape and shake who they are. Along came City Year. I had never been to the South Bronx before I put on my red jacket. I would make the 20-minute commute from one of the richest zip codes in the United States (the Upper East Side) to one of the poorest (Hunts Point). It was daunting.

For five years I had the opportunity to lead over 400 AmeriCorps members through their year of service. I watched these young idealists grapple with the challenges that came from working in high-need schools. And I watched it change them. A City Year is not an easy year – from 7:30 am to 6 pm, AmeriCorps members need to be switched on. They support their students both inside and outside the classroom and often with nothing else than their positivity.

I was endlessly inspired by the creativity and resourcefulness, and above all, from their unwavering commitment to connect to every single student.

Today, I work at Reading Partners as the executive director for national and community service. In the next year some 450 AmeriCorps and VISTA Members will have the opportunity to serve throughout the United States. These members will mobilize 13,000 volunteers, in 300 schools, to conduct 379,000 tutoring sessions with students who are below grade level in reading. What an incredible combination. And I am beyond lucky to be part of it all.

To learn more about becoming an AmeriCorps member with Reading Partners visit readingpartners.org/americorps

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