Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Life moves on and so should we." - Spencer Johnson

Here it is, July 9, 2013. Clearly I have been putting a final post off. I kept meaning to write, but between the many moving parts at the end, I just never sat down to post. Additionally, it has taken me about a week since the experience has officially ended to more fully accept its finality, and to be ready to embrace my next life journey.

Saying goodbye to my service site was one of the most difficult things I've had to do. I was so lucky to have been blessed with an amazingly supportive staff, and right through the end I had so much to do and contribute to. Luckily my goodbyes were somewhat spread over the course of the last couple of weeks, with lunches with coworkers and final gifts and the infamous "Tea." I am proud of myself for not shedding a tear at work, but it was so hard to leave such compassionate and motivated people. I am thankful that my time at VIP helped solidify my desire to pursue a JD and eventually (hopefully) work in legal services. I have an open mind about what's to come at law school, and plan to take part in many different opportunities. But I truly cannot imagine a life grounded in service. I have VIP and the Augustinian Volunteers program to thank for that.

The last few weeks my roommates and I attempted to get in as many adventures from our Philly bucket list as we could. We returned to Longwood Gardens as a community, spent a day in Amish Country, visited the Eastern State Penitentiary, attended a Phillies game, went to a Greek festival, attempted to finish our Top 10 cheese steak list, and tried out some new restaurants and bars. I was also lucky enough to have my parents and brother visit Philly for a weekend in June. We had cheese steaks, went on a ghost tour, visited the Magic Gardens (one of my favorite places), saw the Betsy Ross house, and had an amazing dinner at Max Brener for Father's Day. I definitely feel I saw a lot of the hot spots of the city and had many new experiences. I have to say, though, that I cannot wait to return to the area next year! Even though I'll be living outside the city, there's so many places I've come to frequent and foods I can't live without. I've also been planning to go back to Longwood Gardens for their annual Christmas spectacular.
 Longwood Gardens

 Magic Gardens on Father's Day

Eastern State Penitentiary

Besides finishing up at my service site and running around Philly with my roommates and family, we were anxiously awaiting end of the year retreat. Before retreat we were given a VERY extensive cleaning list. Cleaning an entire apartment is definitely a feat, and even more so with ceilings like ours (aka made for giants!) It took a few days, and although we were covered in sweat from the lack of AC and 95+ degree days, it was rewarding. We went out for one last community dinner at a really nice restaurant called Farmicia. I even ordered a steak dinner. Who am I?

Retreat was full of many different activities and reflections that sparked my evolving emotions. A lot of the focus was on transitioning - specifically transitioning to the next step in life, whatever it may be. For me it's returning home and relaxing with family and friends before entering law school. I have a couple of trips planned this summer (next week I will be in DC visiting my brother and taking a Law Preview class) and the first week of August I will be in Ireland with my family. The rest of the time I am using to mentally and physically prepare for my return to school. It's slightly overwhelming thinking about returning to much reading and writing and assignments where grades are of the utmost importance. I really want to excel, as it is such an expensive endeavor, and job prospects are often reliant on academic performance. My main expression at retreat is hoping I will be able to take the lessons I've learned this year into my coming life. I have become a bit more confident and less self-conscious of my own being. I have tried to live a bit more simply and stay on budget. And most importantly, I tried to live my life in alliance with my faith and surround myself with opportunities to grow spiritually and in service. While it will be more difficult to stay on this path in law school, I hope that by entering an Augustinian institution and reflecting on my actions and experiences I will be a bit more apt to stay grounded. I worry that because college is known by nature to be an extremely selfish time in a person's life, my law school experience will be similar. Because I will be so focused on my work and my schedule, I can see how it would be easy to slip into a more selfish lifestyle. I hope I can continue to find the balance I've tried to make part of my routine through my volunteer year.

We also talked a lot about expectations. Specifically, how did our expectations of the program and year develop and/or change throughout the life of the experience. It seems sensible that everyone has some sort of expectations, even if you intend to keep an open mind. I think looking back I was quite nervous about the religious aspects of the program. I didn't feel entirely tolerable of being in a place where spirituality and faith was the cornerstone. However, what I have been shown is the growing grace of God in society. While I myself am still not extremely religious by nature, I enjoyed meeting and conversing with the Friars, I liked attending mass with my community, and I enjoyed the time for reflection and prayer with myself, my community, and the larger program. I can't say that I would have been able to commit as fully to my experience if I hadn't been always asked deeper questions and given adequate tools for prayer and reflection. I had never been on retreats before, and I felt at ease in both solitude and conversation with others. I definitely have been at least a bit more awakened to the power of faith and I hope I can continue to explore and consider my experience in the time to come.

I am so humbled to have been a part of the AV program. While I went in sort of blind and uncertain, it proved to be a year of tremendous growth. I cannot begin to explain or process the entire experience at this point, as it is still so fresh, but one thing the staff asked us to do at our end of the year retreat was to write our "story." It was helpful in mapping out some of my year and the people and places that stood out. I have so many memories, some exciting, others trying, and still others a bit painful and regretful. While my community did not always challenge each other to the greatest extent, I still feel blessed I met two wonderful young women who share my deep passion for service. We came together to create a loving home and I know I will always remain in contact with them both.

 At the End of the Year Brunch

So I guess it's safe to say - I am an AV Alumni! I am proud to be one. I would recommend this program to any young college graduate, no matter what faith or service background they have. It is a miraculous program by nature because as the staff say, all they present is many different "opportunities." It's up to the participant and the community to take advantage of opportunities to challenge and grow over the course of a year - and really over a lifetime. I feel blessed to have been able to partake in a year of service. I am glad I will be in the Philly area so it will be quite easy for me to remain involved with the AV program and hopefully form a connection with new volunteers and serve as a mentor in the future. I am ready for the next chapter, but am certain that my "year of service" was really just a stepping stone for period of growth that will envelop the course of my lifetime.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." - Orson Welles

Here it is May 18th. Where did the time go? I can't fathom that in five weeks from yesterday it will be my last day at VIP. And just beyond that, it will be my last day in PA with the domestic volunteers. Yesterday at VIP I attended the Probate training for volunteer attorneys. Back in September, I attended my first training at VIP, which just happened to be a Probate one as well. Funny how time often goes full circle.

It's also been somewhat difficult for me to keep up with this blog. At the inception of my year, I thought I would update once a week or so. But for some reason I have found it hard to remember or take the time to write new posts. During my semester abroad it was often easier for me to sit down and write about my current adventure. I guess I knew there were friends and family out there waiting for new posts just to ensure that I was healthy and happy. This time around I feel like the blog is more reflective for me, and I also have become so comfortable in my new home and service site that I just typically spent the days living in the present and reflecting more or less internally and with my community. Still, it's nice to be able to sit down and write when the mood strikes. And with only about a month until the end, now seems like just as good a time as any.

First off, if I do have any curious readers out there that haven't seen Facebook or asked me directly, I chose Villanova for law school next year! When I really stopped to think about it, it felt like the right fit. I visited for a tour and observed a 1L class and the atmosphere and mission are everything that I would want in an institution. Villanova is a school in the Augustinian tradition, so service is very important to its scholarship. The Executive Director of VIP teaches a course called "Lawyering Together," which affords students the opportunities to do clinicals at an outside agency, much like an externship, but the positions are usually social justice-oriented. Needless to say, the pro bono opportunities are vast and I also have grown to appreciate and wonder at Philadelphia. Living right outside the city will allow me to network and use resources and skills I have already begun to dive into this year. There are many firms and legal services organizations, and I know that I will have a head start when it comes to finding a summer internship position. Maybe I will even be able to return to VIP as a law school intern! I would love to have the opportunity to deepen my skills and enrich my experience in a new capacity. Although it was a somewhat difficult decision to choose where to spend my next three years, Villanova felt like home. I can hardly wait for the next chapter in my life to enfold.

Making the decision after so many long months of test prep, applications, financial aid work, etc. etc. was beyond relieving. I've found that the last month or so I've been able to more focus on my work at VIP and home community. It's bittersweet knowing that it's coming to a close! I've gotten to do some fun things with my community lately. We had brunch at this beautiful little restaurant in Northern Liberties called Honey's Sit & Eat. I've definitely missed having breakfast out. We also went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum two weekends ago. While art is not entirely my thing, I did appreciate the "Outsider Art" display and the architecture at Rodin. I also tried Greek food for the first time at Zorba's, which is a really cute Greek restaurant near the museums. It was also Greek Easter when we visited, and I don't think I'd be wrong to say that the food just seemed to taste that much better!

 Us at the Rodin Museum as "The Thinker"

 My favorite piece of art

 Greek chicken kabobs!

A few weekends ago I was also fortunate that Sam and Meredith were able to visit again! They loved their visit in December so much that they made the trip again at the end of April. This time I made sure that they experienced Wawa and also had a cheese steak at a new place. Katharine and I have continued our cheese steak competition and are now 7/10 the way through! Three more yummy cheese steaks to put in my tummy in the coming weeks. Back to Sam and Mere's visit... On Saturday we went to Longwood Gardens. It is outside the city and is absolutely breathtaking. It has more than just gardens, as there are waterfalls, flowers, tree houses, a botanical garden, sculptures and so much more. You can get lost in the place, and there's new things to explore each season of the year. I hope next year I can make it back for the Longwood Christmas celebration.

 And just to make your mouths water a wee bit...

 Cheese steak from Tony Luke's

Chicken cheese steak from John's Roast Pork (#1 in Philly!)

In the coming weeks I am looking forward to going home for Memorial Day weekend (less than a week!) Then venturing to Longwood Gardens again with my community as well as Dutch Country to see the Amish. We also plan to make it to a Phillies game together and to a Greek Festival at the end of the month. The second weekend of June I am heading to Florida with my dad's side of the family for my grandpa's 88th birthday festivities. Then the third weekend of June my parents are visiting Philly! It's going to be a jam-packed next six weeks. I want to make the most of every moment. :)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

United in Mind and Heart

As I sat comfortably on the sofa during the first day of orientation, the Director announced, “You have all been afforded the opportunity to serve this year. And you had better believe it is an opportunity--you are all extremely lucky to be sitting here today.” I remember being taken aback for a second. It was probably the first time I had begun a service experience where I was not simply being reaffirmed of my good nature or thanked for committing myself to the betterment of others. Though I may not have realized it at the time, that was exactly what I needed to hear going into this year.

Indeed, back when I was beginning my last semester of college, I considered attending graduate school, taking a full-time job, or pursuing a year of post-graduate service. I eventually chose to dedicate myself to the Augustinian Volunteers. Service has always been a large part of my life, and during this time of life transition, a year of post-graduate volunteering seemed like the best avenue for growth. Going into the program, what I knew for sure was that I would be serving full-time at a legal services agency and I would be living with two other volunteers in “community.” At the time, I did not realize all that the term community could encompass, but I can now say with confidence that it is much of the reason that I more fully understand what it means to desire to live a life in pursuit of justice.

In the Augustinian tradition, community is where people unite in “mind and heart.” Each night my community members and I share dinner, stories, and life experiences. We serve as volunteers in different organizations, but what binds us together is our commitment to create a more compassionate world. The idea of community is not only exemplified in my home life; it is embedded deeply into my service site as well. Each day, I work as a homeownership pro bono case manager for the LawWorks Team at Philadelphia VIP, one of the largest pro bono legal services agencies in the country. When I first joined the office, I was surprised to find that there are only about fifteen full-time staff members. Despite so few employees, however, thousands of clients are assisted each year. It helped me realize that the work that I am doing can--and does--have a momentous impact.
Sometimes that impact manifests itself on a very basic, human level.

For instance, during a recent conversation with a client whose mortgage payments were being refused by her lender, I explained that I was not an attorney and thus could only offer her limited legal advice. She sighed, and while I prepared myself for her disappointment, she actually replied, “You’re listening to me, and that’s all I can ask for.” I was instantly reminded of that first day of orientation. This was the kind of opportunity that was afforded by our service--the kind of opportunity we are fortunate to have.

During my time in service thus far this year, I have constantly been inspired: by the stories my community members share, by my coworkers’ commitment to justice for the under-served, and by the work that our volunteer pro bono attorneys do on a daily basis. They give countless hours of their time to assist low-income clients who otherwise would go without necessary legal representation. This is the reason I want to enter into the field of public interest law. I want to join a community of lawyers who are trained and skilled, yet passionate about combating social justice issues that challenge so many peoples’ access to legal aid services. This year has afforded me an opportunity to unite in “mind in heart” with my community members, coworkers, clients, and volunteer attorneys – and I am truly blessed to be able to experience this sense of community on a myriad of levels.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

"The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra." - Jimmy Johnson

Well, it's been a LONG and tiring process but in the end, it's paid off. I was accepted to two of my top choices for law school on Friday! Villanova and Syracuse. I am SO incredibly excited and blessed. It goes to show that experiences, letters of recommendations, resumes, and personal statements (in the law school world known as "soft factors" or "softs") really must play some role. Although my college GPA was good, my LSAT scores were not so hot. I took it twice and was not too happy with the results, despite having taken a prep. course and studying A TON. I have just never had the standardized test gene, and after college I became somewhat cynical about the "numbers game." But nevertheless, I am just ecstatic that I have the opportunity to attend one of my top choices for professional school!

I applied to 15 law schools. I am crazy. It was absurd. I just didn't know the outcome with the slightly lower LSAT and which schools would offer me scholarships and such. You just never know. I technically am still waiting on four schools' admissions decisions. But at this point there's a 90% chance I'll be either attending Syracuse or Villanova. For the longest time, Syracuse had been my dream school so that I could pursue a joint degree with a MA in International Relations. I got into that program last year and deferred so I could do this year of post graduate service. Then my experience at my service site instilled in me this desire to pursue law school for public interest law. I still am really interested in international development too, and I can't imagine never having the opportunity to do anymore field work in developing countries or complete development work. So this joint degree would be such an amazing experience, albeit very ambitious. Then there's Villanova. Villanova is an Augustinian school and I have come to love Philadelphia. I have already made some connections here and I could easily see myself happily living in the area and maybe even practicing here one day. I visited Syracuse last Monday and was able to tour the law building and sit in on a 1L class, so I am going to do the same this week at Nova. Hopefully I can make a choice soon!

I can't believe I only have a little over two months left at my service site! I really feel like I have grown so much because of my time at VIP. It's obviously helped in terms of professional development, but also just generally, like I am capable of handling difficult problems or complicated situations in a more calm and rational manner. I utilize help from my colleagues and supervisor but I have found out how to time-manage better and also find many answers on my own, or through trial and error. I have also discovered how a day-to-day job in an office can be really rewarding and also really versatile. I have found my sense of creativity to only be strengthened. Like when I decided to make an inheritance tax guide or coming up with slogans to help attorneys be inspired to take cases. I think keeping grounded is important at any job, but in the public interest field, where there's often limited resources and slow outcomes, it's vital.

I am also really happy in my community and spiritual life. When I entered the program I honestly didn't see myself growing spiritually much at all. I wasn't uncomfortable with the idea of entering a religiously-affiliated program because I knew there are wonderful service opportunities within the Catholic tradition. Plus after having attended Stonehill, I had some experience with the idea. But it's been really rewarding spending time with the Friars who live next door and hearing stories from my community members' sites. Everyone is really down to Earth and even if I never outright say things like "This is where I see God at work..." I have really come to feel more at ease spiritually and having those deeper conversations. Plus drinking wine with the Friars over a chef-prepared dinner is something that no human can refuse! Let alone a starving volunteer...

In other news, the weather seems to be getting better. It's been a brittle winter and although Philly didn't get much snow, it's still been miserably cold. I'm sick of the gloves and big jackets. I cannot wait to walk to the train in the morning with just a sweater or better yet, not even a sweater! Looking at this week's forecast, it looks like it's hitting the 70's! I'll certainly take it.

It's always weird how it's towards the end of an experience that you begin to feel more comfortable and at ease, and then it's over. It just makes me want to make the most of these next two months as best as I can. It's easy to get caught up in the future, especially in my case where I actually am making those big decisions! But it's another thing to enjoy the present in full. I have been trying to strike a balance between the two.

Here's a photo of my community members and I at an indoor mini golf place a couple of weekends ago:

Monster Mini Golf!

I think that's about it for now. Yay for spring!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. ~Proverb

Happy Spring! I honestly cannot believe that it is March 20th. I only have three months left at my service site, and just over that until the end of the program. I arrived in Philadelphia for orientation on August 20, 2012, which is exactly seven months ago. I guess this is really a time for reflection.

It's been a strange winter in Philly, that's for sure. While New England and many parts of the Northeast was getting slammed with snow, Philly often got rain and sometimes slush. We definitely never got a real "Noreaster'" or really more than an inch on the ground, if that. No snow days here :-/ Honestly, I think I would have preferred snow to rain sometimes because walking in the city when it's pouring and dirty is quite miserable. I also learned that intensive wind snaps umbrellas. Kind of an unfortunate lesson.

Monday night was VIP's annual awards ceremony. It is a night to honor volunteers (solos up to big firms), sponsors, and donors who contribute to the non-profit's mission and help support clients in need. A lot of people attended and there are different levels of awards. It was amazing to hear the impact that volunteers make, especially when it's compared to monetary values. For instance, one solo volunteer has been volunteering for the past two years since his retirement. In that time, he's taken over 30 cases and it equals $26,000 in free legal representation. I think when you hear numbers like that it really makes you aware of the great successes of our volunteers. A client also presented his story. He thanked VIP and his volunteer attorney, who helped him gain custody back of his two young daughters after he returned from prison. His family was with him and it was amazing to see his children and how proud they were of him. It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work like emails and phone calls, and forget about what it is we're actually doing. Monday night was rejuvenating and a great bonding experience for all.

The VIP Staff at Awards Night 2013

As for me, I've been trying to manage living in the present with anxiously awaiting my future. I ended up applying to 14 law schools (a bit crazy... I admit) and now is the time where I am beginning to hear back and make decisions. I have been accepted to five so far and wait-listed at one. I am waiting to hear from the final eight, and my top four choices. It's a bit stressful because for the most part, if you're accepted to a law school before April 1st, you're expected to submit your first deposit (which can range anywhere from $200-$500 or so) by April 15th to secure your spot. If you've heard from all schools regarding acceptances and financial aid information before that time, it's not so bad. But I worry that I won't have heard from everywhere by that date so it's taking a big risk between paying a deposit I might have to eat, or waiting to hear from my top choices and not getting admitted in the end. Eeek. However, I already have a few good choices and I am hoping within the next couple of weeks I have more definitive information to go off of. It's also hard to decide to attend a school that is giving me more scholarship aid versus a school that isn't, but better ranked. I want to enter into public interest law in the future and am quite aware that I won't make as much as say, a corporate attorney or a partner of a big firm in the future. But public interest and government jobs are increasingly competitive, and going to a better school opens doors all around. Either way, I am choosing a program that has good clinical and internship programs in a variety of different fields because I believe that an experiential education coupled with good academics is the best fit.

I am hoping this weather improves by April! It's been a rainy, dreary winter. But the groundhog determined that spring is on its way. I sure hope so! I am excited to ditch the winter coat and gloves and enjoy walking around this beautiful city and seeing all that the warmer weather has to offer. My roommates and I are planning a trip to LongWood Gardens, which I heard is beautiful. We're also going indoor mini golfing this weekend and am planning a trip to finally use our movie passes that the program gave us at orientation.

Here's a photo of us celebrating St. Patrick's Day in the city last weekend:

All in all, I couldn't ask for a more supportive home community and work community. I am blessed to have this opportunity and I hope over the next few months I am able to take advantage of all there is left while also looking fondly towards the future.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness." - John Steinbeck

Well, clearly it's been a while. Two months since my last post. I meant to catch up after Christmas but per usual, this year of service has been a whirlwind...

To hit some of the highlights, it was wonderful being home, even though it was just for over a week. I was able to relax, eat some yummy food (that I didn't have to make myself!), see family, visit friends, and experience good ole snow. I felt pretty rejuvenated when the time came to make the trek back for Mid-Year Retreat. I had the community car in NH so early on January 2nd I began the journey to MA. There were three pick-ups and then we ventured onto Ocean City, NJ. It was a long ride, to say the least. But it was nice to get down the shore and see everyone. All of the domestic volunteers arrived at different points throughout the day and we settled into the house for the retreat.

Mid-Year really proved to be a time to reflect and think about the first part of the year and what is to come. They kept emphasizing that we only had five months left of our volunteer year. It was hard to try to keep that in mind, while also trying to look ahead. I was in the midst of applying to law schools. The application process was consuming and stressful. It's hard because I want to feel present in my surroundings and enjoy the year, growing with every passing minute and never taking it for granted. But I'm also being pulled into the future because of my decision to pursue professional school. Either way, a year of service is just that - a year. It's temporal and finite. We spent a lot of time discussing ways to improve community life and what aspects are hindering progression. Although service trips and immersion experiences are things that I am very accustomed to because I've taken part in many, I had never been on a retreat. I wasn't used to a lot of free time and space and opportunity allowed for silent reflection and considerations. It was a relaxing few days and it definitely raised my spirits as I entered the second half of my volunteer year.

I cannot believe it's nearly March. I feel like I have just returned from retreat and it's early January. Once I got back I was determined to finish and submit my applications for law school. I ended up applying to 12 schools... eek! Most are in the Northeast, but there's a few that are spread throughout the country. I tried to choose programs that were known for public interest or had good clinical opportunities. Thankfully all of my schools offered me application fee waivers. But it was still so expensive applying. You pay a fee to sign up for the LSAT, the LSAC service that compiles what's called your law school report that's sent to each school you apply to, a fee to each individual school you apply to to send the report, and I also took a prep course and bought prep materials. It's really a racket. I am now in the process of finishing the financial aid applications. So hopefully in a few days the hustle and bustle of the application process will be finally over and then it's just a waiting game. Because I took the LSAT in both December and February I probably will not hear from the majority of my schools until end of March until mid-April. I was really excited that at the end of January I received a call from Admissions at one of my schools telling me I was accepted with a big scholarship. It was a really great feeling to at least know I was into one school. :)

I am still enjoying my service site. I feel like I have grown so much over the last six months at VIP. I can now handle stressful situations with a more mature and confident attitude. I found that I have the ability to be assertive and also to be intuitive. Because the executive director and one managing attorney are both on maternity leave, the entire staff has been working extra hard to fill the holes in their absence. I feel I am very needed and appreciated. I even came up with my own ideas of ways to improve our materials. I worked on an inheritance tax return guide for clients that explains to them step-by-step how to file the return. It was really rewarding to see a need, follow through with a remedy, and have it be appreciated. I am also getting better at pitching cases to volunteer attorneys. Although it's still kind of awkward asking people to take cases, I've learned that I must be self-sufficient and a self advocate in order to get cases out. It's a good skill for whatever job I eventually enter. Feeling like I am making a difference for people who have real legal needs, while also growing professionally and maturing as a person, I couldn't have asked for a better placement.

We are trying to plan some fun things to do as a community in the coming months. We signed up for the Philadelphia Color Me Rad run in June. It's the 5K run that tours the U.S. Paint is thrown at you as you run and you end up covered in all different colors by the end! Which reminds me, I better start training more diligently... We also bought tickets for an indoor mini-golf place, which sounds fun. We've been trying to go to movie premieres for free as much as possible too. If you haven't used gofobo.com I encourage you to create an account. It's completely free and then you can search for screenings in your area code. If there's an open screening you click on it and reserve the free passes to print. You can get up to two for account. They go quick, and you have to get to the movie early in order to ensure a seat, but it's totally free and you see the movies way before their release date. Sometimes there are even reviewers or famous people there! We've seen Warm Bodies and the The Croods. Even if you ended up not loving the movie, it was free and a good way to spend some time.

I should mention that the weather patterns are strange here. It's crazy to think that New England has been getting slammed with snow this winter, while Philly mainly gets rain. Even Nemo didn't hit us, besides a few flurries here and there. I am not complaining. Even though I am from NH, I do NOT have thick skin. I think I was born in the wrong state...

Anyways, from now on I plan to keep up with my blog. Wish me luck as I embark on the last four months of my service year and await my future plans!