Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 1, October 2007

Finding My Way Through Service

Mike Norton

When I came to Bryn Mawr’s Civic Engagement Office as an AmeriCorps VISTA last August, I was sure about a few things. First, I was moving halfway across the country to take a job in a place I’d never been, at an institution about which I knew little. I knew that I was leaving behind my friends and family in Ohio — my disabled father, my sick mother, my aging and ailing grandmother, and a strong network of supportive friends. Also, I knew I was dedicating a second year of my life to public service through the work I would be doing on the Norristown-Bryn Mawr College partnership. I knew that I would only be staying for a year at Bryn Mawr, and because of that I would need to have my act together rather quickly to begin planning my next move. And perhaps most compelling, I knew that I wanted my relationship with the woman I love, who had just taken a job in the Philadelphia area, to work out; really, why else would I move 700 miles across the country?

Despite these certainties, there were many unknowns, and when I arrived, I felt like I had gotten myself in way over my head. I had no friends except my girlfriend, didn’t know how to get around Bryn Mawr, much less Philadelphia, and was suddenly thrust into a college environment that was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Luckily, at the outset of the fall semester, there was so much to do that there was little else for me to do but plunge headfirst into the work, get to know the college, some of the students and our community partners, and be sure that the grant-writing course went off without too many hitches.

Straight away, I truly felt like I was doing what I came to Bryn Mawr to do — continue to develop and strengthen the College’s relationship with the Norristown community. I was initially drawn to the job itself by the very idea of the campus-community partnership and by my belief that the opportunity to be party to one of these partnerships would be a wonderful opportunity for me professionally, academically and personally. Just prior to arriving at Bryn Mawr, I had completed my M.A. in social and applied philosophy and had spent a good deal of time thinking about the way institutions behave in the communities they inhabit. Very broadly, I believe that institutions bear an ethical responsibility to be productive citizens in their communities by first doing no harm to these communities and, where possible, by making positive contributions to the overall health of their local communities.

In like manner, I believe that individuals as well bear the same responsibilities by virtue of their status as citizens in their communities. Since finishing my undergraduate studies, I have now dedicated two years of my life to public service through AmeriCorps (one year with the Public Allies program and one year here), with some graduate work sandwiched in between. It is my firm belief that individuals working for the health of their local communities begin the process of creating the types of communities where people want to live. As an AmeriCorps volunteer, I have had the opportunity to contribute tangibly to the continued health of communities, and along the way I have learned a great deal about myself and the different ways that I, as an individual, will be able to continue to be the sort of citizen I aspire to be.

Through the course of both my academic and service work, I have come to learn that I have a number of strengths that, I hope, will allow me to pursue a career that will meld these two areas of my life. This fall I will return to school yet again to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, with the hopes of finding creative ways to bring my theoretical and practical training to bear as I confront social issues like education, housing and institutional citizenship. I know that I have the ability to be an effective social worker and could dedicate my life to service in this area. However, I also know that some of my most acute skills are academic — doing research, writing and helping others conceptualize their participation in a greater social context. I believe it is through an academic medium that I will be most able to bring my skills to bear to be the type of citizen who is invested in his community and willing to lend his expertise toward the continued health and prosperity of society in general.

If not for my time at Bryn Mawr, I don’t know if I would have come to this realization. Being a part of a campus-community partnership at a staff level, and interacting with faculty who also participate in this partnership, allowed me to see how I might be able to fit into this sort of partnership beyond my term of service. The power of experiential learning courses and community-based research, for both students and folks in communities, provides a window through which faculty can contribute to the education of their students and the health of a community, beyond the campus. I see in myself the potential to become an effective professor, dedicated to the principle that students’ pursuit of knowledge can and should be informed by experiences both within and outside the classroom. It is my sincere hope that I will be able to pursue this course through my professional career; to fold my desire to contribute to my local community with my desire to educate in a way that is meaningful for my community, my students and myself.

I am thankful for my year at Bryn Mawr College — for the support lent to me by the Civic Engagement Office staff, for the passion of the students, and for the opportunity to uncover my way forward, personally and professionally. And just in case you’re curious, the woman I moved halfway across the country to be with has recently agreed to be my wife.

Thank you for a great year.

At the time of this writing, Mike Norton was finishing his second term of AmeriCorps service and preparing to return to graduate studies. He completed his M.A. in social and applied philosophy at Marquette University in 2006 and will begin in the sociology department at Temple University in the fall 2007. He hopes to continue working in the field of campus-community partnerships through his graduate studies and beyond.