1,875 hours of service, 273 days and four disasters later– it feels like I’ve done it all.
But at the same time, it feels as though my path to being an engaged citizen has just begun.
Upon graduation from JMU, I decided to serve with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Corps Member. This was my “I-want-to-travel-but-not-join-the-Peace-Corps” decision. Originally, this was a year to volunteer in disaster-impacted communities while seeing what the world had to offer, but these months have shaped my post-graduate endeavors in a direction I did not anticipate.
Traveling, working, cooking, serving and living with a team of five others will build unbeatable self-awareness abilities within you. Back-to-back days working from dusk until dawn? Driving a 15-passenger van in bustling city traffic? Collaboration and flexibility are key in ensuring you don’t lose your mind in these situations. I was able to support Louisiana Flood, Hurricane Matthew and Southern Georgia Tornado responses, while exploring several different roles throughout my service. Coordinating physical trainings, leading and assuming financial responsibility for my team, monitoring media to identify how FEMA can better address disaster survivor concerns, creating public service announcements for radio, participating in conference calls with elected officials and advising disaster survivors one-on-one about their FEMA grants are a few roles I was able to assume in AmeriCorps.
There is a saying that every experience is what you make it, and I have found that to be true. Taking chances I was afraid of (such as flying to Mississippi to volunteer for a year while my friends worked real jobs) and pushing myself to take more initiative in tasks (signing up for roles I wasn’t sure about and creating opportunities when there weren’t any) were key to my personal and professional development.
These chances sometimes led me to creating a cookbook at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in my shared church bed because it would make my team’s reflection presentation look good and entering data onto an Excel spreadsheet for four hours straight. The end goal was not always apparent and sometimes had me questioning, “Why did I sign up for this?” However, if it were not for taking risks and being proactive, I would have fewer connections, less confidence in my abilities and reduced opportunity than I do now.
During my four years in the Shenandoah Valley, WRTC and organizations like CAP enabled me to find spirit in writing and humanitarian work. FEMA Corps helped me specify where I could apply these interests; I have been able to test out different job roles where I developed a sense of what piqued my passions and what did not. It is unlikely an entry-level job out of college would have given me the same direction as national service.
Some moments from my life may turn into distant memories, but AmeriStories will never be far from my mind. The life skills I developed through JMU and FEMA Corps built the foundation for who I am as a person and my life trajectory.
With uncertainties ahead in post-JMU and –AmeriCorps world, one thing is for sure: I cannot envision a day without something reminding me of that one coffee shop in east Atlanta, the Hurricane Matthew debris completely covering Tybee Island Beach, ripping out flood-ridden walls of a first responder’s home in Baton Rouge, distributing groceries to refugee families or one of the many moments accumulated from road trips covering five states with my AmeriCorps family, Peak 2.
My advice to you: Stretch your comfort zone, be engaged in your community and take chances, whether it is something as small as taking the lead on a new assignment, volunteering at a food bank or accepting a job in a far-away location. Every decision offers a lesson to be learned.
Dina Manco is an alumna of James Madison University (’16) with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication and minor in Humanitarian Affairs. The summer after graduating, she embarked on a 10-month adventure volunteering for FEMA Corps supporting disaster response across the U.S. In April 2017, she achieved the AmeriCorps NCCC Media Representative of the Year Award, Bronze Congressional and Silver Presidential Awards for Volunteer Service. She will continue engaging local communities through content development as she joins the Public Relations team of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation this summer.