Recent college graduates gain and give back through Northfield AmeriCorps program

As summer winds down and students make last minute trips to Target for supplies, reality is starting to set in for most 2013 college graduates: after 15 plus years of schooling, they won’t be cracking textbooks open this fall.

While some are still perusing indeed.com or wondering what a data specialist actually does, others have found a way to develop professionally, gain experience and give back to local communities.

“I’ve wanted to do a year of service for a really long time,” said recent Carleton graduate Johanna Schmidt. “It’s not academic, but it’s still very engaging.”

Schmidt is one of about 20 AmeriCorps members who will be serving in Northfield Public Schools this school year, helping kids with math, reading, college readiness and more.

Established in 1993 as part of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the AmeriCorps program is an opportunity for young adults ages 18 to 24 to help meet the educational, environmental, health and economic needs of communities across the country. This year in Minnesota more than 3,000 volunteers will complete service terms of between 10 and 11 months, receiving a small living stipend during their service and an educational award of between $4,000 and $5,000 to be put towards student loans or further education.

“I knew that if I was going to go to grad school, I didn’t want to do it right away,” said Adam Zweber, who will be serving at the Northfield Middle School. “I also really didn’t want a desk job. This was something I could see myself doing and feel good about it.”

Serving in schools and other community organizations around town, this experience gives recent graduates a chance to get some real work experience while making a big difference in the lives of local youth.

“I knew I wanted to work with youth in some capacity,” said Kim Horner, a Luther graduate and now co-coordinator of the TORCH program.

After a year of AmeriCorps in a pre-school program, Horner decided that working with older kids might suit her better and began a second year of service, this time helping out with the TORCH program. Horner has since gained full-time employment with TORCH, which is now run completely by former and current AmeriCorps members.

“They are invaluable team members,” said Marnie Thompson, the assistant principal at the high school and one of the supervisors of the AmeriCorps program in Northfield.

But not all AmeriCorps members in Minnesota enjoy as fulfilling of an experience as those who serve in Northfield. Though some graduates are initially drawn to serve in Minneapolis, after a few weeks many wish that had considered Northfield instead.

This positive experience is due in large part to the strong partnerships Northfield schools have with both St. Olaf and Carleton colleges. Northfield schools gladly welcome student volunteers, creating a vast network that benefits everyone involved.

“We truly have a reciprocal relationship,” said Laura Riehle-Merrill, the director of community engagement and student leadership at Carleton College. “Roughly half of Carleton students volunteer during their time [at Carleton]. Our students bring a lot of energy and [the schools] make sure our students get a lot out of the experience. It’s a win-win.”

“I was amazed at how well-established the [AmeriCorps] program is here,” said Schmidt who will be helping with TORCH this year before heading off to law school next fall.

Though AmeriCorps members live on a stipend that breaks down to about $900 a month, you won’t see those serving in Northfield complaining.

“We’re totally spoiled being in Northfield,” said Rachel Sams, another Carleton graduate. “There is always something going on at the colleges that is either free or really cheap.”

Considering these symbiotic relationships, it comes as no surprise that former service members tend to stick around. Riehle-Merrill, who supervises an AmeriCorps member in addition to attending to her other duties at Carleton, also just happens to be a former AmeriCorps member.

“I really believe in the mission of AmeriCorps,” said Riehle-Merrill. “It totally changed the trajectory of my life.”

http://www.southernminn.com/northfield_news/news/article_fc6138ba-ffe5-5575-b8bf-1617455032e5.html