How My Year In National Service Changed My Life

How My Year In National Service Changed My Life

My national service with FEMA Corps helped me realize the importance of being an active member in society.

Five feet.

I can never seem to remember how many ounces are in a cup or kilometers in a mile, but one measurement that I will never forget: five feet.

Five feet reached just below the windowsill on the house Jill spent everything on. Looking at the house you could see a debris line wrapping around the outside, five feet was how high the waterline reached.

Her second chance was underwater and after the flooding subsided she was left with repairs she could not afford and the potential for mold, which could mean medical expenses down the road. A few intact canned goods and McDonalds’ coupons were sustaining her family of five until they could get more money from Food Stamps the following month.

Though her name is fake, her struggle was real and commonplace with survivors in Louisiana this year. Parts of the Bayou State were underwater a great deal in 2016, as a result of two devastating floods. Though she is based on a woman born and raised in Louisiana, her story could have taken place in West Virginia after the flooding or in Florida after Hurricane Matthew.

I will never forget the massive debris piles lining the streets of, what looked like, any neighborhood in the United States.

I will never forget the face of men and women of all ages starving and desperate--the face of someone who lost everything or had nothing.

I will never forget the uncontrollable sobs from an elderly woman forced to start over.

I will never forget the joy on a man’s face who was offered hope, knowing that he could get money to start putting the pieces of his life back together.

I will never forget the seemingly therapeutic exhale of a young woman who was offered a second or third chance at life.

I will never forget the sound of gratitude from the voice of a 90-year-old woman whose house was gutted and cleared of everything that could have caused mold by a team of capable young people.

I experienced these things not because I am a survivor, but because I worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and FEMA partner in the 10-month FEMA Corps program. Just under 300, 18 to 24-year-old people travel cross country, to wherever they are needed to help those in need after a disaster strikes.

Community service may sound like a punishment to some, but to me it was a weight with which to balance the scales. I have been incredibly fortunate in my 23 years on this planet, in more ways than I can form words for. I felt as though it was my duty to disperse the good will I have been surrounded with. Call it spreading positive Karma, self-sacrifice, service to my country or a waste of time if you must, it was something that I needed to do.

My mother always told me to pay it forward (or was that Kevin Spacey?) An idea brought forth originally by Aristotle, the philosopher called it the Golden Mean.

The concept is that the energy you put out into the world, positive or negative, is what you expect to receive in return. My good fortune in life has been in large part cosmically random, as arguably random as a natural disaster striking.

While there are scientific reasons that some areas are prone to flooding and why hurricanes travel in certain paths, to the people that are affected, it is random. It is because of these random circumstances that create and alter the paths we choose and the lives we lead, that I felt compelled to help those in situations that could just as easily have been my own.

National service may sound intimidating, military even, but however you define it, at its core it is giving back to your country. I believe that it should be as respected in this country as military service.

My life was never on the line, I was safe from harm my entire 10-month term, but my sacrifice was still great. Leaving friends and family, having to coexist with nine strangers, sharing beds, living off a small stipend, receiving $4.75 per diem for food and never truly knowing if, when or where a new deployment would be issued.

For ten months I was military issue, wearing clunky black steel-toed boots and pants that are actually referred to as Battle Dress Uniform. I left everything that was comfortable, predictable and familiar to serve those in need. I left my life for ten months so that I could know what it is like helping people like Jill get back on their feet.

I am grateful for the opportunities FEMA Corps presented me with, but I am most appreciative of, and would recommend the program for, my new understanding of my place in this world.

The understanding that I am a part of this big, beautiful, scenic, scary and diverse melting pot of a country and to truly be a part of it, I must participate in it. It is my role to help make this country as great as so many say it is or can be.

Whether it is through serving breakfast to homeless people, providing love and attention to abused animals, Standing with Standing Rock or casting your vote on Voting Day, participation in all forms is what will make this country great.

Cover Image Credit: Hannah Sundell

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Evidence, The Most Important Foundation

A real world example of why data rather than emotion should be used in an argument

As I was thinking of relevant topics to write about, I figured this is one of the most controversial as it is so necessary, yet it is not used to the degree we need to. Of course, one could claim that as I am someone studying the sciences; I have a bias and what I say in this article should be taken with a grain of sand. In an effort to show that evidence really is an unbiased issue, I will provide real life examples.

Within the last year and a half or so, during Trump’s presidency, Kellyanne Conway referenced “Alternative Facts” while discussing a topic of importance. This quickly became a fast spreading joke as people recognized the foolishness that is no two opposing statements can really be true in light of facts. This was laughed off, but it really shows the state of where we are as a society. Regardless of the evidence that provides truth, people still hold on to their beliefs. They even cite examples of exceptions as a reason to disprove an entire argument. Let me provide a crystal clear example of why that is not an acceptable retort. Gravity is something we experience all the time. It is what keeps us on the ground and ensures that we will not float into space where we would simultaneously freeze and burn at the same time. However, one of the most well known exceptions to the rule is helium. Helium is less dense than air and because of that, it floats to the top of the substance that is more dense - air. Now, because the balloon filled helium does not mean that the entire law of gravity is wrong. It simply means that other scientific forces create that exception to the law. This same logic, for example, applies to the immigrant/DACA/Dreamer issue today. Now, I am not going to go into explicit detail, but I will provide references below. Broadly speaking, those part of the Republican party and the President believe that immigrants simply come into the country to kill, steal, and “mooch” off of our welfare system. Data shows the opposite of those claims, however. Those in the DACA program, for example, actually contribute quite a bit to the economy. Greater than 90% in the program actually have jobs and there are immigrants that have become military members to fight for the country they seek refuge in. Now I am sure there are exceptions to those rules such as Mexicans who are part of the drug cartel or even people who come from countries of muslim origin who commit terrorist attacks. The reality is much different in that there have been significantly more domestic terror attacks by whites in this country than people of color. A person is actually more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine, shark, or even falling down stairs than being killed in a foreign terror attack. This relates back to the Law of Gravity example because even though there are exceptions to the reasons to the (primarily democrat) effort to keep immigrants safe in the country, that is not a viable reason to enact such radical policies to keep them out. Now of course, the issue of illegal immigrants is certainly prominent but arguably that is more a problem with the system itself and many of those people have been proving immigration policies futile. I am not saying I think illegal immigration is justified, but I think the data needs to be looked at and incorporated into any future improved policies.

The real point of this article is to tell people of this country that before you decide to get into a debate over a controversial topic, think about the facts first before letting your emotions guide your argument. Evidence has done wonders for the field of science ( science, engineering, mathematics, astronomy, etc.) and has gotten us where we are today. Try using it in your everyday life instead of reacting with emotion to something. Who knows, you may just change your position on an issue.

Cover Image Credit: les Inrockuptibles

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Forget Professional Neutrality: It's Time to Post Politics

When we're walking the wire, it's not unprofessional to tweet politics - it's necessary citizenship.

For those of us that grew up in the information age, the memory of someone in our lives warning of the dangers of speaking your mind too freely online isn't too distant. Now more than ever, our social media has become self-branding, networking, proof of our relevance and ability to behave with tact in an adjacent public sphere, and an archive for which others can do quiet research on us with or without our full knowledge.

As a result, teachers, advisers, and guidance counselors tell us to keep vulgarity and base humor out of the picture and follow the rules of "polite company": if you won't say it around children or in front of your grandmother, keep it off public profiles. The idea is our social queues of whose immediately present don't extend into an entire friend's list past, present, and future anymore than it covers the college applications, interviewers, or even future in-laws that might be scouring the web for an insight into you as a human being. There are real-life consequences for slipping up - missing out on a scholarship, losing a job, or even offending a potential friend or networking contact without realizing the first thing that comes up with your name on Google is a heinous tweet from 2010 or a less-flattering photo that you should have never been tagged in. What's appropriate on a Saturday night with peers might not be so great at 9am on a Monday in an office when an assistant does a quick reputation-check before your meeting with a hiring manager. Or how a revenge post of intimate photos from your ex can turn into a career-ruining nightmare.

When posting, many of us know better than to post without considering the broadest possible audience that could potentially see it. When thinking of this "polite company" rule, however, does it extend into all social graces? What about the controversies your mother begs you to dodge at family reunions, like politics and religion?

I've personally given this consideration a great deal of thought this past year. All of my core values, personal research, sense of humanity and ethics, ideological views, and belief in human decency feel strongly opposed to the Trump administration. As a man proud of prejudice, a long history of mistreating people, and the ability to make absolutely anything and everything extremely personal (one look at his Twitter account makes it clear his world is distorted into an extreme worship-Trump or "losers-that-despise-Trump" binary), he brings up more than traditional platform debates. Is it talking politics to say "grab them by the p****" is offensive, predatory, evidence that counts towards a horrifying amount of sexual assault accusations, and misogynistic? Is it talking politics to say that his first campaign speech was full of unfounded racism? Is it talking politics to say we should be horrified that he is stealing national money to fund golf trips and keep his wife living in partially-estranged luxury in New York City? Is it talking politics to say that him insulting another nation for whom we have been on the brink of nuclear war for decades is terrifying, dangerous, and one of many acts of a mad man?

If he himself refuses to behave with professionalism and the usual boundaries of political rhetoric, and as I would argue, refuses to act presidential while being entirely unfit for office, is it talking politics to return that same lack of decorum?

After a certain point, is it even ethical that I'm concerned about retweeting a damning post from a meaningful and qualified contributor because I'm a senior wondering if a potential future employer will like Trump, or the absence of objectivity will harm a chance at professional or graduate-study journalistic pursuits? Is that not selling out? When is it bad judgement or poor manners to speak your mind, and when does it become blatantly unethical not to?

Well, now. We've crossed that line.

The amount of tongue-biting it takes to be polite and professional, particularly online, is more difficult some nights more than others under this administration for me. The State of the Union address was one of them.

It is a national tragedy is that I'm a 20-something studying in nowhere, Massachusetts with no presently immediate impact on global affairs and I have exerted more self-control and impulse-tweet-filtering in the last 24 hours than POTUS during his entire campaign.

Which is saying a great deal, because about 3 hours ago the words "orange devil" (only a conservative step down from my usual quip of 'cheeto demon' and some timely Oscar Wilde quotes) found their way to a Facebook post. It's not as though I slipped on my keyboard - creativity is coping, and disoriented rage is the fallback for those of us running on fumes. Presuming we survive the next three years and find a replacement that doesn't continue the constant threat of an impending reign of terror (I'll take anything closer to 44 than 45 at this point), the nation will need a time of healing and rest after. (Not to mention, the challenges ahead for presidential predecessors in damage repair are mounting daily.)

It's alarmingly easy to open-mouth-insert-foot in the land of eternal records, where history cannot die - only haunt you - and everything you say lasts forever: the internet. Sometimes, though, you have to say something. Sometimes the world is too strange, extreme, and exaggerated for satire to wrap its mind around, and our traditional civility is bought out, chewed up, or banned from the White House press room. There's a call to action and the rules don't apply as they used to.

Tweets. Picketing. Marching. Praying. Donating. Something to speak up and speak out. It's a moral imperative, a personal compulsion, and a coping mechanism - a matter of sanity,a question of the right side of history, and a need those of us staring in horror to have a solidarity as a band aid restoration over lost faith in humanity.

It's why we're all asking the same questions:

Anyone else seeing this? Anyone else HEARING this?

Anyone else crossing themselves every time they update themselves on breaking news and the global state of the affairs?

It's not just me right?

Is existential dread just a sign of the times?

If it feels like you're on thin ice, can we really afford not to be deliberately political? We're living in slippery-slope times where everything we say and do and are becomes inherently political. Some people are more conscious of this designation than others - particularly those whose personal lives can be destroyed, frayed, threatened, or even ended because of a powerful rich stranger's opinions - the kind that become legislation - on their rights to live and exist.

We can't be distant from politics now, even those of us who don't feel wired for those conversations and lack general interest. Those with certain privileges have the luxury of being theoretical about it - they live bulletproof lives and can walk through political battlefields unscathed, treating policy like hobbyist ideology with nothing on the line. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should ignore what's happening and affecting those around you. Just because you're here doesn't mean you relate to drafted boots on the ground.

Refusing to make a meaningful, ethical contradiction to the world you don't want to see isn't just keeping your head down or not taking a stand -- it's pure complacency. If you don't understand now, after all this time, why that's the most dangerous thing you can do, take a walk to the library. Pick up Elie Wiesel.

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