From Member to Director: Elena's AmeriCorps Journey
For AmeriCorps week we wanted to talk to as many AmeriCorps alumni as we could to see how being a member impacted them and their career. What better place to start than with our Wetland Restoration Director Elena Larsen!
I have been fortunate enough to serve in two different AmeriCorps programs. My first AmeriCorps service term was all the way back in 2011. I served with Great Basin Institute and their Natural History Interpreter the first year their Visitor Center opened. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and I was so excited to be a part of a program that I felt aligned with my future goals. I was studying Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at University of Nevada, Reno, so working out in the wilderness and talking to people about how cool snakes and squirrels were seemed like an actual dream. My fellow AmeriCorps member and supervisor were amazing people and made the experience really special. They were older than me and I felt like I received a lot of guidance from them for my future. I’m still close with both of them and had the privilege of going to my fellow Interpreter’s wedding a few years ago.
I had graduated college and received my Master’s degree before I decided to do another AmeriCorps service term. I joined Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation as an AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator in the spring of 2018. I was definitely on the older end of the cohort for this experience and it was quite a bit different than my first experience with AmeriCorps. I realized the impact I was having on the community a lot more in my second term than my first. I was working directly with kids who were really excited about learning science and how things in the natural world work. Watching the kids make connections in their heads that they might not have made without my help was incredibly rewarding.
AmeriCorps is definitely not without its struggles. The living allowance is very modest and being able to survive on a small amount of money is definitely a huge challenge. I do believe this makes it difficult for a lot of people to be able to serve as an AmeriCorps member as not everyone has the ability to hold a full time position with such a modest living stipend.
I feel like I’ve now come full circle as someone who runs an AmeriCorps program through one of the organizations I served at. I am in charge of the Wetland Restoration Program at TMPF and I can say for a fact I would not be in the position I’m in right now if I didn’t do both AmeriCorps terms. Feeling the impact of service through my own experiences and now seeing the impact from the back end and watching members learn and grow through their positions has been just as rewarding as my service was.
AmeriCorps is important for many reasons. It is extremely important to the communities they serve because AmeriCorps gives back in ways that are often not possible without the programs. AmeriCorps members serve at nonprofits and government agencies and more often than not these organizations are underfunded or understaffed. Without the AmeriCorps program, communities would undoubtedly suffer.
I also think a term of service can be very important for the individuals serving. You see a different side of things through AmeriCorps that you may not have otherwise had the opportunity to experience. Members are providing services to people who may be from very different backgrounds or have had very different life experiences. It’s a learning moment not just for the people that are benefiting from the program, but also for the members themselves. It’s also an excellent way to get your foot in the door for the type of work members are hoping to pursue for their futures. For natural resources specifically, it’s very difficult to find positions in this field without prior experience in the field. AmeriCorps is able to give people those experiences while also providing a vital service to the community.
I definitely credit my AmeriCorps service for helping get me where I am today, both on a personal and professional level. AmeriCorps absolutely gave me skills and connections to be able to succeed in my chosen career, but beyond that, it helped me grow as a person. I made some very real friendships through this program and although it was tough at times, I would do it all over again.
About the Author:
Elena served as a Naturalist Educator for TMPF in the spring and summer of 2018 and is now working as the Wetland Restoration Program Director. She's a local and is extremely excited and proud to be working to restore an abandoned open space back to a functional ecosystem in her hometown. In her free time, Elena can be found obsessing over dogs or participating in trivia nights.