Nicole Stephens, CAC AmeriCorps Alum 2014-2015
I am very loud, I kind of have a filter, and I have always felt the need to speak my mind-even when it goes against what others are saying. If there were a “Most Outspoken” superlative in high school, I probably would have won.
I am originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Valley had been my home for 21 years. After graduating college, I did temp work in a factory where they made perfume gift set boxes, I also worked at PINK by VS. I was working 18-20 hour days before I decided to leave my life behind to make my mark on the world, have my voice be heard, and start making changes. When I got to Montana to serve as a VISTA, I was very excited. I thought to myself “here’s your chance to start over, reinvent yourself! You don’t have to be loud anymore; people were really mean to you when you were loud. You want people to like you now. Be a people person! You can do what Miley did and just chop all your hair off!”
My year as a VISTA was comparable to being the mole in whack-a-mole. I was always on guard, I didn’t really fit in. Montana was not where I was meant to be. I had a very difficult time learning what was expected of me as a professional. Let’s be brutally honest here. A lot of people (NOT ALL) want you to know what they are thinking without them saying it. That’s somewhat rational when you know the person and have for years. However, communication is always key. ALWAYS. I felt lost, abandoned, broken, and chipped away in every form during that year. I have not ever felt any emotion in such a raw and pure form before. It was a true growing and learning experience. I don’t know where I would have been without the warm hearts and sunshiny personalities of 3 of the best people I have ever met out there. Long story short, with the support of very loving friends and family, I finished my term of service as a VISTA. I felt that I had accomplished nothing, I didn’t make a change. I felt that I was just some silly, naïve, mildly entitled, white female who thought she could make a difference. I felt angry. Angry Nicole was back, she had gone away for some time after her Descendents albums were put away. I felt the universe had chewed me up and spit me out, like a child trying to eat broccoli. I decided to turn this anger into something better, revenge. I rewrote my resume, submitted as many applications as I could, I didn’t hide my personality, in fact, I did what I am doing now. I put as much of my personality on to paper as I possibly could. I am awesome. I can make a difference, no one will tell me otherwise. I won’t care if people like me this year, I’m not here for people to like me, and I’m here to do something.
I applied to CAC AmeriCorps. I genuinely enjoyed my first interview; the person interviewing me had lived in Montana and understood me. It was magical! I had interviewed with the Town of Farragut Stormwater position, and it just seemed like an environment that I could thrive in. I packed up my bags, moved from Montana to Tennessee. This was the best decision that I ever could have made. When I first started here, my revenge confidence had faded, I was worried no one would like me; I didn’t have much money, so I didn’t have the most professional wardrobe. Would people like me at a Town Hall? Would I be as pretty as my voice sounds? Would I disappoint yet another group of people, or even worse, myself? Here is a brief little bit of information. While I am loud and all the aforementioned; I am extremely self-conscious and shy. When I first meet people, I am quiet and look at the ground. I worry that my nerves will lead me to foot in mouth syndrome, people will take what I say the wrong way, or that I will just not know how to interact. Being from the north, I sometimes have the tendency to be direct; people can (and often do) take it the wrong way. So I usually spend the first few days observing my new environment. I try to make sure that people will be okay with my personality and will not be upset or offended by my well-intentioned, sometimes Michael Scott-esque traits. I didn’t really have a hard time at the Town Hall. I learned that I am actually more of an introvert and I’m really okay with it. I learned different styles of communication and the importance of adapting to your environment. Through my year with CAC, I learned that I am not a disappointment, I am strong, and I can make a difference.
During my time with CAC AmeriCorps, I did work an outside job. This made it somewhat difficult for me to socialize with my fellow AmeriCorps members. On the other hand, it connected me with people in Knoxville. I’ve made life-long friendships working that outside job-in fact, I still work there; I love it too much to ever leave. For some odd reason, I do not know how to function without a high stress level. This is very obvious through my physical appearance. I am 25 years old with the acne of a budding tween/teen, I drink so much coffee that I’ve decided to buy stock in Starbucks, and I will carry that coffee everywhere with me always (including in the middle of a stream). The Gilmore Girls are amateurs with coffee obsession when compared to me. The stress of completing a 65 hour week was challenging, but this stress helped me. It helped me to take things less personally, manage my time better, and push myself to be the best I could. I like working, I like to stay busy. I also really like taking care of myself. Whether that is through making some insanely delicious meal, dessert, drink found on Pinterest, or just laying in bed all day with a good book and coffee. I realized I wanted to be able to help wherever my help was needed and still be able to help myself. I didn’t want to live a life that I felt was full of work and not full of me. After all, if I don’t care about myself, why should anyone else? My year with CAC AmeriCorps taught me self-love and balance. I figured out what I wanted to do, I learned the types of work environments really suit me. I was able to do all of this through volunteering at other sites. I made sure that I took the time in the beginning to volunteer with whichever sites needed help. I was able to figure out that I don’t mind working with recycling, but that I’m not really a fan of picking up recycling and compost bags lying in a pile of vomit. I really enjoyed my time working with EarthFest and creating some of the most unforgettable larger-than-life costumes. I learned that I didn’t really enjoy field work. Call me crazy, but I do not like spiders larger than my hand, snakes of any sort (Indiana Jones really nailed that), or being the sacrifice to a large mass of mosquitoes. I may not be able to name all of the things that I did during my year with CAC, but I will always remember the positive impact it had on me.
My first year of AmeriCorps left such a scar, that I am currently still trying to get over that year and not let negative thoughts from myself-or from others hold me back. It seems to me that things break much more easily than they are built. Without the loving community of the AmeriCorps members, my family, and the Knoxville community, I never would have realized my strengths, or anything decent about myself. Through my second year of AmeriCorps, I was able to work on rebuilding. I may not be 100% where I’m supposed to be yet in life, but the changes I’ve made to my personality, professional life, and confidence are all due to my experience with CAC AmeriCorps. I genuinely do not know where I would be today without that opportunity.
This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.