City Year: Making a Difference With Youth Mentorship & Empowerment

city year young heroesBy Jamaal Williams

As a high school senior, my mother encouraged me to follow a path that would set me up to be successful. She instilled in me a desire to serve others and I knew that my definition of success would be tied to helping others realize their success. College was my training ground for figuring out how to do that and finding friends that exposed me to new things, outside of the experiences I had in the classroom, was the first step. Having the right people around me made me realize that the college experience is more than learning about development psychology and microeconomics – it’s about discovering yourself and what you stand for. Thanks to those friends, I figured out that youth empowerment fulfilled me and that’s what brought me to City Year.

Assessing the City Year Opportunity

City Year offers young adults an opportunity to dedicate ten months to improving schools and communities across the country. At City Year, you serve as a corps member, working with students as a mentor, a tutor, and a role model that helps them graduate from high school on time. While City Year felt like my vehicle for helping youth grow into agents of positive change, I had to make sure a year of service would be a feasible option.

Since City Year is an AmeriCorps program, my college loans were held in forbearance during my term of service so I didn’t have to make payments on them; I was eligible for food assistance that I could use for groceries every month; I received a living stipend that could go towards rent; I got a travel pass – the coveted MetroCard in New York – to cover travel expenses; and when my term of service was over, I earned access to exclusive school scholarships and an education award for $5,550 that I used to pay off all of my undergraduate loans. With these benefits, I could focus on the work at hand – the youth.

My Time Working With City Year New York

I served as a corps member at City Year New York for two years. I worked with middle school youth in Long Island City, Queens, supporting them academically during school, educating them about social justice issues out of school, and providing them opportunities to serve their communities focusing on the social justice issues they learned about.

describe the imageI had found a way to empower youth, cultivating leaders that think critically and understand that their success is tied to the success of others. I had the opportunity to help build a community where middle school youth felt comfortable sharing their experiences and perceptions of topics like homelessness, violence, poverty and racism; I saw a shy sixth grader address a sea of hundreds about the necessity of youth service; I gave my middle school youth the skills to find their passions and the confidence to strive to make them real.

Finding Your Own Purpose

I thought I was supposed to have all the answers before going to college; however, college is more about asking the right questions and getting the resources necessary to answer those questions.

So as you think about the college process and your path to success, I’ll challenge you to do four things:

1. Thank those that helped you get to the place you’re in now.

Very rarely are people successful on their own.

2. Push yourself to discover what you’re passionate about.

Use every interaction to learn about yourself and the impact you want to have on the things and people around you; it’ll benefit you when filling out college and job applications.

3. Talk to others about what they’re passionate about.

Some things may resonate with you and help you realize your true passion.

4.  Find a way to support the people coming behind you.

The choice to invest in another person’s growth is the most powerful choice one can make.

Tackle those challenges now, in college and beyond, and you’ll find yourself on your own path to success. My college experience taught me that with the right resources and the right support, anyone can put their passion into practice; my City Year experience showed me how. I only hope that after high school, after college, or at some point in between, you join me in seeing the difference you can make on children, youth, and yourself in a year. I serve because by making others better, I make myself better; that’s success to me.

What’s success to you?

Jamaal Williams is the Recruitment Manager at City Year Boston. After studying psychology and Africana Studies at Cornell University, Jamaal joined City Year New York where volunteered for 2 years. After graduating from City Year New York, Jamaal joined the staff at City Year Boston, first managing their middle school program called Young Heroes and then moving to recruitment where he seeks 17-24 year olds who want to give a year and change the world. If you want to see the difference a year can make, visit, and if you want connect to Jamaal and ask him about his experience, follow him on Twitter at @jamaalrecruits.

About City Year:  City Year is a youth service organization that seeks to build democracy through citizen service, civic leadership and social entrepreneurship. City Year works to combat the high school dropout crisis by placing young adults in high-need schools and communities to serve as mentors, tutors, and role models, keeping students in school and on-track to graduate from high school. City Year volunteers do this by focusing on three early warning indicators that have been defined through research: attendance, behavior and course performance in math and English. City Year operates in 21 locations across the country helping students excel in school and building young adults into leaders.


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