By the time Anna Gilbertson graduated from Fort Collins High School in May 2014, she was ready for, in her words, “an intellectual break. I studied pretty hard in high school.”
She applied for the Peace Corps and learned she was too young to be accepted. But in the process of applying, she learned about City Year, which is part of AmeriCorps National Service Network. Three-thousand young people between the ages of 18 and 24 spend 11 months in 260 high-need, low-income public high schools in 25 sites all across the United States. The program also operates in the United Kingdom and Johannesburg, South Africa. Close to home, there is a City Year program in Denver.
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Gilbertson signed up to go wherever she was needed and ended up as part of a corps of 50 young people assigned to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The program focused on three elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.
At Clinton Middle School where Gilbertson served, she worked with seventh and eighth graders. However, because she worked with students who were struggling with school, the age range ranged between 12 to 15 years old.
The AmeriCorps volunteers were charged with serving as mentors, tutors and role models to at-risk students in hopes of keeping them on track and in school. Students were divided into two tiers, depending on the amount of help they needed. Gilbertson said the classroom teachers were extremely busy and had only limited time to interact with the volunteers. Aside from a few training sessions, the volunteers were forced to take initiative, recognize a need and do whatever they could to help. “Sometimes it was frustrating, but it made me go out of my way to do what needed to be done,” Gilberston said. She did everything from facilitating small study groups to helping teachers with routine classroom tasks.
Looking back, she sees her year as one of learning and growth. She bought into the “growth mindset” advocated by the program – while you may not be very good at a given subject or activity, you will get better if you keep trying. When a student told Gilberston how much she hated math, Gilbertson responded, “None of us came into the world knowing how to do math. We all had to learn it, and you can too.”
Gilbertson sometimes felt inadequate in her job, partly because she was one of only three high school graduates in the program. The rest were considerably older and most were college graduates. Also, she felt inadequate because of a fellow volunteer who seemed to be a perfect fit for the job. In Gilberston’s eyes, the fellow volunteer did the job so very well. “I did get better with time,” Gilberston said and admitted that she was often hard on herself. “It’s a flaw of mine.”
After nearly a year of living in Tulsa, Gilbertson confirmed that she’s a small-town country girl. Her home on an unpaved road north and west of Wellington sits among open fields. She returned to it with an added appreciation for open spaces, mountain views and her dogs.
One of the reasons Gilberston took a gap year was to discover what she’d like to do with her life. While she learned a whole lot, she did not emerge from her AmeriCorps experience with a passion for any one field of study. This fall, she will follow her older sister to Colorado College, where her search will continue.