My Experience with Service by Francine Tageant
I was first introduced to AmeriCorps when a friend of mine decided to serve in Bellingham, Washington. She was serving at a middle school helping tutor students who had fallen behind in school. I can remember how excited she was when one or more of her students would begin to understand their coursework.
My children are now all grown and leading their own lives. I was ready for a change in my life as well. Little did I know that it would be blown up in just a few short months. I had been married to my kids’ father for about 35 years. Following unexpected events, I found myself looking at a divorce. I began attending classes at my local Goodwill in hopes of bettering my skills to prepare to reenter the job market—for the first time in 15 years! I began the process of filling out job applications online. One of them was for an AmeriCorps position in the Bellingham area. I submitted the application without realizing that once it was in the system, I would hear from national service programs across the country searching for someone like myself.
I began to hear from all sorts of AmeriCorps programs asking if I would be interested in serving with them. My focus then was figuring out if I could do this. Montana Campus Compact soon reached out to ask if I would be interested in serving with them. I immediately perked up. I have many ties to Montana since I was born there. I looked at several of the open positions in Missoula. I have cousins who live there, as well as an aunt and uncle who own a house that they rarely use. I got the okay from them and then from MTCC. Before I knew it, I was packing up to move to Missoula, Montana.
I began my service in September, a little nervous because I had no professional experience on a university campus. I can tell you that there is a lot to learn about serving on campus. Privacy rules, chains of command—where are all the buildings? I began serving at the College of Humanities and Sciences Food Pantry at the University of Montana. It was set up with food for students to come and grab as needed, but they were not really coming to look or even get food. I began to try to figure out ways to get students’ attention to get them to come in to see all that we have to offer. I began keeping a basket with granola bars and easy-to-grab snacks. Students noticed them and came in for a granola bar. I would greet them and encourage them that yes, they could take the granola bar. There seemed to be a concern that they were not allowed to have granola bars and other snacks. It took time to build up the students’ comfort level. One effective way to encourage student engagement is to take a table with snacks on it and place it in the hall. If I sat next to the table, the students would rarely grab anything. When I returned to the office to eat lunch, the snacks quickly disappeared as many students grabbed some. I learned that students are more comfortable if they can pick up the snack without having to have much contact with another person. So, I began to just greet students while sitting at my desk. I found a lot of students would apologize for coming in to get food. I would explain that the food here is for them because we realize not everyone can make it to the primary food pantry on campus. I have learned so much about food insecurity since I moved here in September. The need is not only among the students; I have had staff members come in to look for food for themselves. I am settling into my role here at the food pantry and learning so much about how a university operates.
For me, serving through AmeriCorps has proven to be an awesome way to see what is next in my life. How I can be a better part of the world out here and do something with my time that is making a difference in the lives of people I see daily. The world of the college student is complex in many ways. The cost of going to college has easily doubled over the last 10 years, which makes it a real struggle for students who have limited resources. They are forced to make difficult choices about how they spend their money, and food is often something that they cut back on. Our pantry is here to help close that gap and provide foods they can easily prepare at home.
I have had two experiences during my service so far that really struck to the core of my beliefs. The first was a student who was forced to wait for a new debit card from their out-of-town bank. The bank had deactivated their old card because a new card was in the mail. This should have taken a week at the most, but instead took three whole weeks. The student was locked out of their bank account and had no way to access their money. They used both the primary and H&S pantries so they could have something to eat, and use soap, toilet paper, and other personal hygiene items. This made me feel better knowing we could support this student during such a challenging time.
Another powerful moment occurred the other day when a new student first visited the pantry. They were looking around and I could hear their excited gasps. I usually stay at my desk so students can shop for the food without someone following them around. This gives them a sense of privacy that they need to make their food choices. After they were done getting food, they came out and stopped with tears in their eyes and thanked me for having the pantry here because they were unable to go to the primary pantry for food. Now they would be able to have food to eat during the next four days while they waited for a paycheck. I am glad that we are here for these students to help stamp out food insecurity. As they continue their studies, they now know that the H&S Pantry is here to provide much-needed food and set them up to succeed in college.