AmeriCorps VISTA Ben Thorp: College Changes Everything in Council Bluffs

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Ben ThorpBen Thorp is a graduate of Michigan State University where he studied English and Education. He now serves as a AmeriCorps VISTA member in Council Bluffs promoting the College Changes Everything initiative.

When I graduated college a mere five months ago, a mixture of fear and hope bubbling in my chest, I had literally no idea what I was going to do. Granted, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that, it seems this day and age a lot of people are looking blank-faced into the sky and asking “uh, seriously, what am I supposed to be doing with my life?” Unfortunately for me, my friends are all wildly self-motivated (ick), professionally-driven (what is this?), and generally likable (re: the absolute worst) young people. Therefore the impetus to do something was very, very strong. I’d been working a variety of jobs (no lie, like seven) that were all centered on education: tutoring athletes, coordinating at an after-school art studio for high school students and a story- telling project that paired college and elementary students. So when I finally started to look around for a job, education was at the forefront of that search.

I’d be remiss not to mention that inequality, and particularly education inequality, is an issue that I really do care about. My college, The Residential College of the Arts and Humanities (a small, mouthful of a liberal arts college that works as a cog in the Michigan State University system), made a big deal about “civic engagement.” This entailed putting students into the community and helping them work on a variety of issues from food access to refugee development. Through these situations, albeit begrudgingly, I realized all the ways in which our communities and institutions have neglected and abandoned people, and the responsibility that we all share to make sure that this changes. So, when I was offered a job with AmeriCorps in Council Bluffs working to “help increase college attainment,” I said “Alright, I’ll do it.”

Don’t be confused. Accepting this position doesn’t mean I have this whole “what are you doing with your life?” concept figured out any more than I did before. In fact, my very first day was filled with the sheer terror of realizing that I was expected to figure out how to best serve schools on my own. My first meeting (which was really more like “bumped into this person in the hall”) with the big boss went something like this:

“Hello Big Boss, I am Ben. What can I do to get started?”

“Increase college attainment in the school district by five percent.”

“Oh. Cool. Anything else?”

“I really hope you’re a self-starter.”

And that’s how my AmeriCorps year started off. Now, especially for someone who’s been agonizing over “how should I be living life?” a question like “how do I increase college attainment by five percent?” is not significantly less scary on any scale. But, so far, the freedom to figure this out on my own has been invaluable. While I still don’t have some of the larger answers, I have been able to develop the skills I need to make it through the smaller stuff: designing a college attainment program, developing a budget for that program, and working with community partners, teachers, and counselors to find what the students need and the best way to get it to them. It’s all still in the infancy stage, just starting to take off. But I think maybe, like my wild adventure into adulthood, it’s starting to be able to walk.

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