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When I graduated college last year, like most of my peers, I was looking for the next step on my personal journey — a chance to be a part of something big, to make a difference in people’s lives. I found it — in a way I never would have expected.

I joined City Year, an education-focused nonprofit that fights the dropout crisis in American education by sending teams of idealistic 17-to-24-year-olds to serve full-time in the lowest-performing schools in the country. These corps members serve as tutors, mentors, and role models who coach behavior and attendance and tutor small group and one-on-one English and math lessons. City Year was envisioned at its inception in 1988 as an “action tank” — a dynamic place where theories of social change could be not merely debated but put into practice.

I saw a call to action in a statistic — that in the District of Columbia, where I was born and attended school, fewer than three in five high school students graduate on time, if at all. In fact, some DC high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent. So I joined City Year Washington, DC, because I saw a way I could do something about it.

Last year, at Johnson Middle School in Southeast Washington, DC, I served in an eighth-grade classroom, working day after day with the same students to boost their math and English skills. I also mentored them through behavior issues and (my favorite) ran the afterschool sports club.

But the work of a City Year corps member is extraordinarily difficult sometimes. We are a high-energy bunch — you might have seen us doing PT (physical training) in public, or riding the Metro together distinguished by our trademark red jackets. But underneath that burst of youth and idealism, our service can be bruising and emotionally draining. Our work is of the sort that tests the strength of your convictions and your commitment to a cause greater than yourself. Sometimes it feels like the problems we face are so grand; we need every ounce of that energy to keep our focus in a cynical culture, to stay dedicated to our mission.

In my second year, now at DC Scholars Stanton Elementary in Southeast, my plan is this: never lose sight of the big picture, and waste not one minute in the service of the goal. In short, to let urgency conquer fear. It might take years for society to feel the negative effects of the student who drops out tomorrow. But the problem is urgent. Can we see the inherent immediacy of this problem, and work to preempt it? Can we overcome the apathy, complacency, and the fear of failure that render us ineffective? That’s what City Year corps members work to do, little by little.

Hope and inspiration come from unexpected places, and the little things matter — which conversation with a student will spark the curiosity that fundamentally changes their life? Which beautification project will inspire people to take a greater role in their community? Although the school year is just beginning, I must act like my time is running out. My goal for this year is not to waste a minute of this opportunity, making the most of every single moment. While I can accept there will be hard days ahead, I cannot afford to have any wasted ones.

When I reflect on these two years, no matter what’s next, I want to look back with no regrets, knowing that I did everything I could – for my students, for my school, and for my city. The situation we face demands nothing less. But I know that while the challenge of solving the dropout crisis is massive, it is not insurmountable, and I’m far from alone — I’m just one of 2,500 City Year corps members across this country supporting countless educators, all ready to act with one mission — making sure everyone graduates.


Matt Repka is from Bethesda, MD, and is serving his second year with City Year. He is a Team Leader at Stanton Elementary School.

This is the sixth and last blog in a series we've featured from City Year and AmeriCorps alumni about their journeys to Be Fearless through service. Read the first, second, and third, fourth, and fifth posts.

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