Dr. Sharon Wagner is being honored as a Champion of Change for her time and effort in AmeriCorps.
I am truly honored to be included in such a remarkable and dynamic group of social advocates as the Champions of Change. My own story of service began in middle school. I grew up in a small town on the South Shore of Boston, MA, and attended a very special camp on Cape Cod called Briarwood. This was a special place because through all the turmoil of emotions that accompanied adolescent years, it was the one place I could go among my peers and feel accepted. I wasn’t a religious child, but I felt a strong spiritual connection to God, humanity, and the Earth as we learned about each other and the Christian and Native American beliefs connected to society and the environment. After my second summer as a camper at Briarwood, I volunteered every summer for eight years as a camp counselor in order to ensure that other young people would be able to experience this connection and acceptance.
The experience at Briarwood allowed me to appreciate the gravity of the situation when at the age of 12, I read about the impending extinction of the rainforests around the world. The article lit a spark in me. It seemed so wrong from a spiritual perspective to be killing so many species that share the Earth with us. It seemed so foolish from a human perspective to be destroying the very thing that may hold the key to curing some of our most terrible diseases. As I learned more about environmental issues, I committed myself to a career path that would enable me to work toward protecting the environment and the people that depend on it. As an Environmental Science major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I had the opportunity to spend a week during my senior year as a participant in one of the first Alternative Spring Break trips. I traveled with a group of students and our instructor, Dr. Art Keene, to New Road, Virginia to learn about poverty, social justice, and grassroots development, while assisting with building renovations and cleanup in the community. This trip was my first experience with service learning, the concept of treating a volunteer experience as much as an opportunity for the volunteer to learn and grow from the community as for the community to benefit from the volunteer’s work. It was a concept that made a lot of sense to me. People don’t want someone riding in on their white horse to save them. They’re not going to trust that. But, if they realize it as a partnership, where they have something to give as well – if both the volunteer and the people they serve have pride in the work – that is when change is possible.
AmeriCorps was the natural next step when I graduated from UMass. As a 22-yr-old graduate, I wanted to save the world – I just didn’t know where to start. I applied to the Peace Corps, but when it came down to it, I looked around and saw so much need in our own country that I could not ignore. I wanted to serve the people of the United States of America. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), with its focus on service learning, gave me that opportunity. I was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina and trained for acceptance into a wildfire-fighting team. Our team, Red 5, did three environmental projects in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, where we removed exotic vegetation, planted native vegetation, built trails and renovated park equipment. We did two education projects – at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock and at the South Carolina Teen Institute. And, we did two projects in the area of unmet human needs. We were team supervisors for two months for college students who volunteered on their spring breaks for Habitat for Humanity in Anniston, Alabama. Then, we used what we had learned in Alabama to renovate a shelter for abused and neglected children in Hope Haven, Mississippi. I received an email from the director of the shelter in 2005 that the building we renovated was one of very few left standing after Hurricane Katrina hit the area.
My experience with AmeriCorps was rewarding, challenging and memorable. It opened my eyes to the depth of need in the United States and to the unique, inviting culture of the South. It showed me the power of a small group of citizens committed to “Getting Things Done”. It gave me the confidence to work as a middle school science teacher in a Mexican barrio in San Diego, California even though I had no formal education training or experience with the culture. I taught for three years at King/Chavez Academy of Excellence and connected with my students using the service learning skills I had gained in AmeriCorps and Alternative Spring Break. The passion for learning about social and environmental issues in other cultures and educating youth led me to teach high school Environmental Systems for two years at Colegio Americano in Quito, Ecuador. I returned from Ecuador with renewed appreciation for the opportunity for change that exists in the United States and began to work toward a doctoral degree in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. As an Environmental Systems teacher in Ecuador, I had begun to appreciate that energy is the key issue at the intersection of environmental and social issues for our country and the world.
I am now an Assistant Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Maine, teaching about energy issues and working to advance a humane and sustainable energy future. As a public land-grant institution, the University of Maine is committed to serving the citizens of Maine, the nation and the world. I have the unique opportunity to collaborate with a group of highly skilled, intelligent, hard-working, and compassionate scientists to encourage the development of vast renewable energy resources in Maine and throughout the country in a way that improves social wellbeing. In a career path committed to service, my experience in AmeriCorps was a crucial step during a transition from youth to professional that gave me the confidence, knowledge and skills to solve critical social and environmental problems.
Dr. Sharon Wagner is an Assistant Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Maine.