Diploma Diaries: How Volunteering Changed My Life

This post is a part of our Diploma Diaries series — our look at post-college life. Interested in submitting your own story? Click here to get the details.

By Margaret Darling, Alumna of Luther College

Seeing the excitement in her eyes contained was all I needed.

At first, I hadn’t recognized her. But as she approached me and called my name, I began to study her more closely. And as my eyes scoured the contours of her face, I could feel my recognition bubbling to the surface.

Moments after she first called my name, I knew it. It was Mia.

She was the young girl I had spent time mentoring before going off to college. In my senior year of high school, I spent every Tuesday afternoon with her, playing on the playground, pasting colored paper squares together in an attempt to make a mosaic and building intricate Marbletopia racetracks. We had a fantastic time each week, and I had a blast goofing around with her. She enjoyed the playful outlet each Tuesday afternoon provided, which was an opportunity to get out of a portion of the day’s work to hang out with me.

At the time, I hardly thought I was making any significant impact in her life, let alone one that would cause her to remember me so clearly a year later. But as I took in her pure, genuine enthusiasm for seeing me again, I knew that I had. That was all I needed: I could not turn away from the incredible impact that time made in our lives.

In college, as in high school, I volunteered with various mentoring and tutoring organizations. By participating in each one, I was exposed to distinct forms of intervention in kids’ lives. Some simply aimed to give at-risk kids a positive role model to interact with and look up to. Others were more focused in their goals, gauging the academic and emotional progress students made through the duration of the program. And each time I saw a spark of excitement flash across the eyes of a youngster that realized the doors her new knowledge would open, I caught fire anew.

And through each program, I observed more and more of the constraints on educators and mentors. I was able to talk with teachers, learning of their institutional frustrations and obstacles to working toward goals they have for their classes. Some of these frustrations and obstacles stemmed from financial constraints, others were rooted in the time constraints and others simply resulted from the short attention spans that result from a lack of food.

As my appreciation for the magnitude of the problem grew, I thought of different approaches a tutoring program could take to enact positive change in the lives of these kids. With these ideas, I joined the executive leadership team of a local mentoring organization, Believing and Achieving. The organization, which was founded a few years earlier, had grown tremendously and worked with children from a variety of backgrounds. With the necessity to enact and tailor new programs based on the educational setting and personality of each child, I helped to implement new ideas and foster a culture of innovation.

With this practical application of my new ideas, I sought out the opportunity to work as a community organizer and literacy tutor through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Coasting off the exhilaration of successfully-implemented programs with Believing and Achieving, I developed ambitious programs and lesson plans for the students I would work with that summer. I had goals of creating an engaging bilingual reading program and hoped that my excitement would instantaneously be returned to me by parents and kids that were excited to learn and grow.

But it was through implementing these plans that I came to comprehend the gravity of external obstacles to education.

After weeks of planning and engaging with the community, I struggled to convince some parents to commit the time and effort to returning to the library each Wednesday night for Bilingual Reading Night. They had good intentions and wanted the best for their kids, but there were more immediate concerns on their minds — and rightfully so. Many worked long hours, making just enough money to keep food on the table. And sometimes not enough.

Without proper nourishment, I had no hope of making any significant impact — a rock and a hard place, if there ever was one. I spent frustrating nights trying to concoct ways to get around these obstacles. And through all this, I continuously improved my lesson plans and reached more children, but I still felt that there was more I needed to overcome.

I traveled south to Peru with this same passion for creating the best educational programs and empowering as many people as I could. There, I volunteered with two nonprofit organizations, researching policy and teaching English to immigrant women. And as I began to work more closely with the women, I saw more and more of what they were up against. Despite their and my fiercest efforts, there were permanent obstacles to what we could overcome. Begrudgingly, I considered that some structural hindrances were too ingrained for any one person, no matter how innovative or determined, to overcome.

Returning from Peru, I struggled with this. I did not want to concede that some people would always be out of reach or that others were fighting against too much to get ahead. I turned back to my notes taken form years of direct experience, hoping to glean the much-needed epiphany.  And as I did, I realized I had the ability to affect the issue in a different capacity.

While my role as a mentor, tutor or member of a nonprofit organization was limited by external hindrances, I saw incredible potential in a role that influenced education policies as a whole. These perspectives had the ability to consider and weigh all aspects of the problem and enact positive change in a comprehensive way. This was my solution.

Leaving college, this is the focus I took: I moved to Washington, D.C., to put my years of experience to use in engaging policy discussions. At times, it has been difficult to find the same passion I had felt working with Mia or the Peruvian women, but whenever I feel too distant or question whether or not I am making an impact, I look up to the framed photo I have of Mia and I on our last day together. Those smiling faces are all I need.

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