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AMERICORPS Reflections

Reflections on a Year of National Service

~August 2011~

Editor's Note: This is the third year that an AmeriCorps or VISTA member from the Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team has written a reflections column for Volunteer. Ellie Klein has written for Volunteer Today for this past year. She is off to teach in Spain, but will continue as a columnist for VT. Thanks for penetrating columns each month. We wish you well. These columns are a reflections of the impact that volunteering has on someone's life. Enjoy.

Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team. Established in 1995, the Federal Way AmeriCorps program works to strengthen the Federal Way community through academic tutoring and modeling an ethic of service.

AmeriCorps members in Federal Way serve full time in the Federal Way Public Schools. In addition to tutoring students and developing before and after school programs, members manage two community tutoring programs, implement civic engagement community projects and serve in area service projects. AmeriCorps members also recruit and train community volunteers. For more information on their programs http://www.fwps.org/dept/volunteer/acfw.html


In a recent commencement address at Dartmouth College, Conan O’Brien astutely said, “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” As I was saying goodbye to my students over the past month, many of the words I left them with were about persistence, hard work and not being afraid to fail. These ideas were not just cliché lines of hope that I was feeding to them, but rather based upon my observations of them over the past year. I have seen so many of my students inhibit their own efforts because they were afraid to fail. I have seen students stay quiet throughout a class, half-heartedly complete an assignment, or almost purposefully flunk a test, because it was easier for them to chalk up their failure to a lack of effort than a lack of intelligence. To put everything you have into something and then fail – that is hard; that is ego busting; that is heartbreaking.

There is a power that comes from knowing your disappointment is your own fault; you didn’t study enough for that test, you failed to proof read your own cover letter, you did not put in the time and effort into an old friendship. When we allow ourselves to settle and forgo our expectations for ourselves, it is easy to call it laziness and not failure. This lack of effort can be comforting as it certainly maintains our ego and provides us with a sense of control over our own lives. But such indolence inhibits growth; it stops us from realizing our own potential and our own limits. It fails to reach for the self-reflection necessary in most successful people and emotionally intelligent human beings.

Lately I have been thinking about the high expectations I hold my students to and the ones I have for myself. My success in relationships with students this year stems directly from my ability to hold them accountable while remaining patient. One of my sweetest ELL (English Language Learners) students described my technique as “unconditional love” in a letter she wrote to me at the end of the year. At first I saw her words as something lost in translation, but as I thought about it more, I realized that this balance of standards and support is what I strive for in every loving relationship, especially the one with myself. True love is not letting people get away with everything. It is not agreeing with every opinion. It is not letting people you care about slide by or yourself stand still. True caring is high expectations accompanied with affirmations. Holding yourself to low own expectations can create an inflated feeling of success, while constantly pushing yourself without recognizing your accomplishments is exhausting. There needs to be in balance of the two, and a delicate one at that.

I surely have had times in my life and relationships characterized by high standards and minimal support and I have had plenty of cheerleaders who agree with me at every turn and never question my judgment. I value all of those relationships, but I find the ones I grow and learn from the most, are the ones in which I am held accountable, in which my beliefs are challenged and my expectations scrutinized, yet support is unwavering. I am happiest when I am challenged, pushed and rewarded. boy jumping

In my first year out of college in the “real world” I am still trying to figure out this balance of standards and support in every relationship. As I was telling my students to free their minds from the false sense of control that comes from not trying, I am still aware that I need to do this myself. I fear any sort of failure in front of others, pushing myself to learn concepts I do not understand, and applying for jobs and graduate schools that seem beyond my qualifications, yet I know that holding back in my own life has only ever left me wondering “what if.” So, even when supported by cheerleaders or brought down by critics, I hope we can all reach towards our highest potential and realize that each failure ultimately brings us closer to the satisfying liberation of understanding our limits and ourselves.

Ellie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. She is currently serving with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at Decatur High School and volunteer at the Westway After School Program where she tries to engage students in learning through personal reflections and cross-content understandings.

Corporation for National and Community Service

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