How my AmeriCorps Service Year Changed my Life One Month at a Time

Originally published 08/31/2019

In my last year of undergraduate studies, I did a part-time AmeriCorps service year through Iowa State Extension for the Iowa 4-H arts, communication, and design programs.

Serving for AmeriCorps gave me incredible opportunities to combine my interests in design, communications, project management, and the performing arts to work directly with youth and 4-H leaders, start new collaborations, and strengthen information organization for current ones.

Throughout my service year, I wrote short monthly reflections that summarize the variety of opportunities and experiencess I had with AmeriCorps, ISU Extension, and Iowa 4-H, and I’d like to share them in case you’re considering an AmeriCorps service year. ❤

September

Tying it all Together

The last weekend in September, I had the wonderful opportunity to lead a workshop in friendship bracelet making at the 4-H Ujima Retreat. Friendship bracelets have always been an important form of storytelling to me and are a creative outlet that is straightforward to teach. The workshop started with an active brainstorming activity for choosing bracelet colors and designs that have important meanings to each participant. Then, everyone chose their materials and I demonstrated some basic friendship bracelet knots. After that, I went around and provided help and additional string when requested, but in the tradition of friendship bracelets, people with experience making bracelets were also helping those around them.

Something important I learned halfway through teaching the workshop is that I was trying too hard to make it constantly high-energy and social when the participants (especially the introversion-inclined like myself) really appreciated the activity as an opportunity to recharge. I had many requests for string at the end of both workshops to make more bracelets. The most rewarding feeling is seeing the string transform into bracelets on more and more participant’s wrists as the day went on! There were bracelets that represented flags from different countries, good friendships, and a whole lot of creativity.

October

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Interdepartmental Meeting

Being an interdisciplinary Design major, I am fortunate to have a lot of different projects and involvement in different departments at Iowa State. Mainly, I spend my time involved with design, theater, and the 4-H Extension. I never anticipated, however, that I would find myself meeting in a room with faculty… from each of these departments. Sitting at a table surrounded by leaders from different backgrounds enthusiastic to collaborate, the atmosphere can really only be described as infectiously inspiring. We discussed potential projects, events, and interdepartmental partnerships. I took at least four pages of notes. There are a lot of enthusiastic exclamation points in said notes.

This meeting, while inspiring, did not necessarily define what exactly these partnerships will look like going forward. This was the planting of a seed that has better defined what each department would like to contribute in the future. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it, and look forward to the next step in the process which will be focusing on a collaboration with ISU Theater to create a Performing Arts Passport program. Stay tuned.

November

Picture This: Camera Corps Feedback

One of my biggest projects this month has been sending Camera Corps feedback for the September photography theme. Each month, Camera Corps participants submit a photograph for the theme along with a written explanation for their process and I receive an e-mail notification once they submit it. Then, the jurors for the month send feedback to every participant. This is the first time I’ve been a Camera Corps juror, and it’s been both very fun and challenging. I’ve done a lot of in-person critiques in design studio courses, but writing out the feedback is a little bit different. This is mainly because you have to make sure what you’re saying makes sense on paper. September’s theme was Sunset to Sunrise, so there were lots of gorgeous golden hour photographs. After sending the first round of feedback, I’ve started to recognize the names of participants submitting photographs for new themes, which is incredibly cool. I’m looking forward to sending feedback for future themes!

December

A Map of Much Importance: Summer Workshops/Semester Planning

There’s something incredibly exciting about planning for a new year. Taking the ideas that have been conceptualized throughout the fall semester and actually working out the logistics while presenting the ideas for feedback is a wonderful way to end December. One specific thing that I got to plan out was a map of the State Parks in Iowa where we will be hosting workshops this summer! I find joy in the information organization during this part of the planning process, so you can bet there was a color-coded key involved.

Now, the start of the new year can also feel a bit overwhelming, considering how many projects and workshops are in the works. It’s easy to feel like there are important small details that are missing. That is why making this map of the summer State Parks was so important. Not only was it a helpful visual guide for us to work with, but it was also an essential tool for collaborating with the county leaders to make sure each of these workshops is successful and that we’re not missing any of those critical small details. So, what’s the best way to end a semester of exciting planning and start a year of putting these plans in action? I’d say a map is a great place to start.

January

Portfolios and Performing Arts: KCACTF Theatre Festival

This month I had the incredible opportunity to attend the annual Region 5 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for the ASPIRE arts leadership intensive and various workshops on the performing arts and community engagement. To prepare for the intensive, I created a portfolio explaining the Performing Arts Passport Summer Camp- from the mission of the camp to the schedule to the budget- after discussing other 4-H summer camps with my supervisor. The portfolio was then displayed at the week-long arts technology and management expo, filled with costume design, lighting design, sound design, and stage management projects from across the region. Then, I presented the portfolio during the second half of the ASPIRE arts leadership intensive and received helpful feedback and enthusiasm for what’s to come!

I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend a week surrounded by artists who are driven to use the performing arts as a catalyst for conversations in their communities and look forward to applying everything I learned to 4-H programming!

February

Portraits and Pizzas: Cedar Rapids Photography Conference

At the beginning of the month, I had the wonderful opportunity to help lead a group of 4-H students at the Professional Photographers of Iowa Conference in Cedar Rapids. The conference was week-long , and our 4-H group decided to spend all day Sunday there. We went through the photographs on display and learned about the ranking process judges use and different stylistic techniques the photographers use. We then got lunch at a local pizza place and walked around the different company booths. This was a wonderful opportunity to discuss what the 4-H photographers enjoyed shooting most and they shared photographs that had been entered in various fairs and the ones that meant the most to them. There were lots of adorable photographs of pets and reluctant siblings!

In the afternoon, we went to a local photographer’s studio and learned about lighting portraits. The studio was a giant room on the second floor of one of the buildings in the city, and it was filled with lots of furniture, lights, and eager 4-H photographers! We rotated modeling and taking photographs around the room, and one of my very favorite parts of the day was watching the photographers gain confidence in their model-posing abilities. Throughout the afternoon, friendships were made, and new skills were developed. It was a very cool experience to be a part of, and I look forward to future photography workshops with this group of 4-Hers!

March

Now that’s what I Call Character Development: National Photography Conference

This month I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude. When I started my senior year at Iowa State, I had no idea how many unique opportunities this service year would provide. I also didn’t predict that at the beginning of March I’d be in Washington D.C. helping with the first ever 4-H National Youth Photography Conference! Yet, at around 3:00 AM at the end of February, our troupe of aspiring photographers boarded a plane from Des Moines to D.C. and proceeded to spend the weekend taking photographs at a variety of museums, learning new tools and techniques, and meeting other 4-H photographers from around the country. We also learned quite a few traditional group dances, went on an adventure by foot to find the nearest Target, and ate a lot of almonds from California.

While there were several highlights of the weekend since we had such a wonderful group, my favorite moment was after the conference had ended. Clark had booked flight times that would allow us extra time to visit monuments and museums before and after the conference, and before the conference everyone had been excited to explore the museums. After the conference, everyone was excited to take photographs in the museums! Watching the 4-Hers gain the confidence to carry their cameras proudly and excitedly find new photograph opportunities proved the importance of national intensives like this one.

April

Connect-ing my Senior Capstone: Workshop Leading

If you think back to group projects you’ve participated in- either as a student or as an adult on any sort of professional team, there are probably some you think back on as being wonderful, collaborative experiences and some that were perhaps a bit harder to work with. As a senior in the Interdisciplinary Design program at Iowa State, I’ve been spending the past semester working on a final Capstone project addressing team dynamics. More specifically, for this project, I’ve been researching personality types and how knowing your personality and the personalities of other people on your team can build social capital and make your project more successful. (“Social capital” is the glue that connects a group of people, like the neighborhood structure of borrowing cooking ingredients from your neighbor). While I mainly focused my research on being in charge of team designation for the (d)dares (d)innovation event, I also looked at personality assessment as a tool to find good fits for college majors and possible careers.

To celebrate AmeriCorps week (and because being an Academic Advisor is one of my dream jobs) I proposed a workshop for the annual Connect Retreat based on using personality assessment as a career and college-major matching tool! I brought copies of a shortened version of the Myers-Briggs style assessment to the workshop and had each of the 14 participants take it. I then went down the list of type combinations (you end up with a four-letter combination for Myers-Briggs) and read aloud a short description of how they might approach the world and some potential college majors and careers to consider. We also discussed the validity of personality tests and how they might be useful without boxing you in. It was lot of fun to see everyone’s reactions while I was reading the descriptions while discussing what they agreed described them well and what wasn’t accurate for them.

May

Collaborative Camera Corps Critiques

This month had several exciting projects and collaborations, but one of my favorites involved the Camera Corps program and one of my Interdisciplinary Design classes called Visual Literacy for Design Critique. As the name suggests, in this class we’d spent the semester learning how to write helpful critiques for a variety of topics. For 4-H, we’re always looking for jurors to provide feedback for the Camera Corps participants who submit photographs based on monthly themes, so it seemed like a natural fit for a collaboration! As a class we brainstormed and then wrote a description for the theme “Rhythm and Texture,” and then at the end of the month I divided up the photograph submissions, so each Interdisciplinary Design major had two-three photographs to critique. I then collected the critiques and sent them out to the participants!

It was a really cool real-life application for the class, and it was also fun to read everyone’s different critique styles and take them through the Camera Corps process. Hopefully, this sort of collaboration can continue between the College of Design and Camera Corps to establish mentorships for the photographers and give college students experience writing critiques.

June

Now That’s What I Call Character Development, Vol II: Design Camp

Every month for this great story I like to write about exciting projects and events, but for June I’d like to reflect on some smaller interactions that were particularly meaningful. For context, growing up I struggled with a lot of anxiety. It was something that prevented me from doing a lot of things with my peers (like going to museums) and made overnight camps especially challenging. After my fear of getting sick escalated into me not eating properly, I actually ended up in the hospital and did outpatient therapy for an anxiety-based eating disorder for three years — ending last thanksgiving break. I am now in a much, much better place. I mean, last semester I worked in a museum and helped lead the Camera Corps crew taking photographs in museums in Washington D.C.! The reason that I’m telling you this personal story is because in June I got to help lead the week-long Design Camp on Iowa State campus and met campers who were struggling with similar fears and uncertainties that I was all too familiar with.

Having experienced similar situations to what they are going through and being able to demonstrate how you can, one small step at a time, face those fears, gave me the perspective and the patience to be an advocate and mentor for each of these fantastic future designers. Over the course of the week, I watched them choose to stay involved in activities they were unsure about and took time to talk through what they were thinking when they decided it was best to sit out. I was so happy to celebrate the small victories with them, and I now know that what used to be my biggest weakness — anxiety — is now my greatest strength — empathy — as a camp counselor and leader.

July

The One with the Art Festival

It’s no secret I love meeting new people and volunteering at events, so it’s no surprise I was giddy with excitement getting the opportunity to run the Iowa State Extension booth at the Waukee Arts Festival this month. Leading up to the event, I thought it would be fairly easy (pun intended) preparation wise to run a booth, so I focused on other projects. About a week before the festival I realized this was not the smartest plan. Cut to two days before the festival and me frantically printing flyers, recalling where I’d found tables and chairs for other events the past semester, and looking up location details for a park I’d never been to! It all worked out just fine, but lesson learned: being adaptable is great but being prepared further in advance than you think you need to when doing something for the first time is even better.

Sharing information on Camera Corps at the festival was incredibly rewarding because there were a lot of kids at the event who would walk around and see all the talented photographers displaying their work, and then come to the Camera Corps booth and learn about a program that encouraged them to become those photographers. The artists who had booths around mine were the sweetest people and listening to their stories just makes me love the Iowa art community even more. Our wonderful Artist Next Door for the State Fair this year (who was also a mentor at Design Camp!) joined me for the afternoon portion of the fair. Her sketching at the booth brought even more attention our way, and we got to discuss her plans for illustration workshops. Exciting events and partnerships ahead!

August

Insert Fair Pun Here: Iowa State Fair

All summer, there’d been a sort of giddy excitement in anticipation for the Iowa State Fair. Having grown up going to the Minnesota State Fair, I wasn’t really sure what to expect living at the fair for two weeks straight, but I was excited for the experience. (I was initially going to summarize what we did each day at the fair in a sentence and list them, but after the first few days it all starts to blend together!) The first day of prep we arranged the Iowa 4-H Reporters “studio” where they would be editing footage with us. The next few days I helped photograph all of the 4-H food submissions, including over 300 baked goods. It was like an epic 80s adventure movie level test of self control. I also got to judge 4-H Communication poster submissions, which included MANY entertaining puns.

Once the fair started, our 4-H Reporters were ready to go cover events and interview fairgoers. The first few days we covered interviews and events as a group, but as the weeks went on they divided into smaller teams and took initiative to tell the stories that mattered to each of them. One of my favorites, for example, was a story covering different foods at the fair for different dietary restrictions. While the days at the fair were long, just being at the fair makes everything twice as exciting. I sent out a lot of Camera Corps critiques while we were waiting for our reporters to return to the studio while eating apple eggrolls and listening to Share the Fun performances. It was awesome, but I am still recovering from the exhaustion two weeks later!

Final Reflection

Today marks the last day of my AmeriCorps service year for ISU 4-H Extension and Outreach. When I first started, I had no idea how many incredible opportunities, challenging projects, and wonderful people would make this year particularly impactful, and I was not expecting to spend random days throughout the school week driving around Iowa teaching photography workshops or leading groups of high schoolers around campus (and Washington D.C.!). To say I’m grateful is an understatement. The students I got to work with through Iowa 4-H are so talented, driven, and authentic, and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish. Learning alongside them has taught me so much about the importance of accessible arts education and given me so much hope for the future!

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Abigail Luchsinger

Abigail Luchsinger

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Curious Collaborator, Project Coordinator & MID student rooted in a performing arts background. Loves mbti, mentoring students in the arts & cold brew coffee.