“I am quite certain that the amount of south Asian or “brown” people participating in environmental stewardship and service is definitely a minority, and it’s not because of a lack of passion, but of societal and familial restraints.” – DC AmeriCorps Alum, Samir Shah
Q&A with DC AmeriCorps Alum Samir Shah
Where did you grow up?
“I have grown up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia area, just a 20 minute or less drive outside of Washington D.C.”
When and where was your term of service?
“I served for a summer term, from June to August of 2016 with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Colorado as an AmeriCorps member. “
How or from who did you hear about AmeriCorps and why did you choose to serve?
“Before RMYC, I spent most of my time with mankind’s most advanced tool – the computer. As an information technology major, I was accustomed to well ventilated, air conditioned, indoor spaces where I would stare at a screen for hours on end for the purpose of work. I first heard about Americorps through my good friends, who inspired me to serve. When they first mentioned Americorps, I had no idea what they were talking about, but by their own experiences of how much of a positive impact RMYC played in her life, I decided to apply as a crew member. Though I am studying IT, I have always been an outdoor enthusiast so hearing about RMYC, I could not think of a better way to spend 10 weeks in the beautiful colorado Rockies for the purpose of environmental stewardship. Nothing could have prepared for me what I faced this summer as my expectations were blown away.”
Can you describe your service term?
“I camped the whole summer. In which, I lived and worked with a team of 7 other young adults. As a team, we worked on trail beautification projects in different National Parks and forests with a home base in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I used trail tools daily and met many different people from all over the country through RMYC. I met individuals committed and passionate about the betterment of the environment in our nation. I served for 10 weeks from June until August of 2016. Colorado was beautiful and some days during work, I would look out and just be in awe of my office.”
Can you describe a memorable time out in Colorado?
“Imagine for a moment, that all the luxurious commodities, and complexities of the real world have disappeared, replaced by dazzling landscapes, pure serenity, and beautiful simplicity. In today’s fast paced real world of materialism, vanity, and social status, it may seem that a world such as this is beyond reach. However, this life is possible, and very feasible for those who choose it even today, through a space commonly referred to as “the backcountry.”
The first couple weeks we worked on a variety of projects, from the creation of new mountain bike paths, the restoration of hiking trails to demolishment of barbed wire fences. The days were arduous and laborious but the completed projects always left a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment- knowing that we had contributed to the enjoyment of nature and the conservation of the land and wildlife. At the end of the day, we would go back to our van and drive back to our campsite. Then, 6 weeks in it was announced that we would be going “backcountry” for our next project.
Preparing for a hitch usually requires just getting all of your things together, organizing, and figuring out whether you want things in the van or in your tent. Preparing for a backcountry hitch however, requires a lot more planning, preparing, and adjusting to ensure a smooth and worry-free week. Not only do you have to carry your tent, sleeping pad, and essentials, but there is “group stuff” such as stoves, tarps, pots and pans, and a whole lot of food that must be distributed among the crew evenly and that must be crammed in to your pack along with everything else. Packing for a backcountry hitch requires thinking ahead and a lot of analysis on what you need and don’t. Think about every part of your body, your hands, face, ears, nose, eyes, and anything else you might need to ensure you are comfortable for the duration of the week. The last thing you want is to hike up to the top of the mountain and realize that you are missing something!
Once preparations are complete and the crew is ready to hike out, the real fun begins. While the 3 mile hike uphill with 50 pounds on your back and tools in hand can be a grueling, and adverse couple hours (or longer) at the end what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the beautiful view of shimmering lakes, tall snow-covered mountains, and gorgeous green valleys at the top of our Missouri lakes trail was enough to compensate for my aching body. Everyone in our crew understands the importance of what we are doing and although the hike was harder for some, in general the moral remained high and positive to the end.
Once there, we were instantly immersed into a solitary and peaceful environment unlike I have ever experienced. Setting up camp, the kitchen, latrine, and bear hang were time consuming but necessary tasks, and we began our week of being off the grid. At first I couldn’t help but marvel and wonder at the beautiful essence of what we were doing, camping and working without affecting the nature that we were working on. On our first night, we had ended work late and therefore arrived at camp around 6. Dinner had to be started immediately, however some troubles with the gas stoves led to its completion around 9. As we circled up to have a moment of silence and begin our meal, a tremendous rumble of thunder shook the sky, and it wasn’t long before rain begin to pour from the clouds unapologetically. We quickly finished eating, thanking God that we had time to put up the tarp beforehand, however we then realized that the bleach and soap were still up in the bear hang over two hundred feet away, and the rain showed no signs of slowing. For some reason I felt responsible as I had cooked dinner, and decided to volunteer to get it along with the other cook. With no rain gear and a dim headlamp, my friend and I set off into the night, stumbling through the grass and rocks and trying to find our way to the bear hang. Once we got there, we realized that our problems had just begun, as the bear hang had been tied around a tree rather taut, and the weight of it was almost impossible for one person to hold while the other untied. Still, we managed to undo the knot after what felt like forever, and searched through the bag only to find that the bleach and soap were not there. At that moment we were startled as a blood curdling howl pierced the darkness and echoed through the valley, which could only mean one of two things, either our team leader was calling us back to the kitchen, or coyotes were closing in. Our fingers numb, and clothes drenched from head to toe, we jogged back to the kitchen with heavy hearts and heads hung in disappointment. Our leader announced to us as we approached “we found it!” Meaning our trip had been in vain. My friend and I couldn’t help looking at each other and bursting out in laughter as we joined the dish line, an unnecessary adventure that could only be had in the backcountry. Experiences like this remind me of the joy and happiness that we feel working with this community of positive, like minded individuals everyday that make the exhausting workdays worthwhile.
What makes it all the more worthwhile for me, is not just the astounding scenery, serenity, and community, but the actual work that we do every day and how it affects our community and nation. Although the work is with heavy tools, and can definitely be fatiguing, all of the gratitude and “thank you!”s that we receive on the trail uplift our spirits and revive our motivations, reminding us all of the essential good that we are doing by taking part in this program, conserving and maintaining the beautiful landscape of Colorado and helping to ensure the enjoyment of nature by enthusiasts and tourists across the nation every day. We do not receive a whole lot of recognition for the work we do (working on creating an app for that but that’s another story), but for me it definitely is enough consolation to know that by allowing nature to be observed and loved by citizens and visitors alike, we are helping not only to preserve nature, but the state of our country in general. It’s economy, it’s landscape, it’s beauty, and appeal, and spirit are all directly affected and impacted by this program, and though this work is not as easy as typing some buttons on a keyboard and watching the program do the work, I love it for this reason, and so many more.
As the week continued I found pure bliss with nature in all of its splendor. Though the workdays didn’t leave much time for it, I longed to be back at our camp and engulfed in the peace and serenity that the backcountry offered. During the week, I found time to meditate beside the lake; time to reflect, ponder, and answer deeper questions about life, dreams, and the state of the world today. It was almost as if I was taken back in time, and couldn’t help but feel a vast difference from my usual, modern workplace in IT, to a place where civilization had not yet arose. Don’t get me wrong, being backcountry is by no means easy, everything requires work, from using the bathroom to cooking food, yet it is this fact that makes it all the more worthwhile for me. The ease and comfort that we experience everyday in the modern world, and that in fact we strive to increase every day through technology and progress, is irrelevant. Though one might find this fact startling and disconcerting, life is stripped back from all of the complexities and layers to the bare necessities of survival and happiness, and becomes, even to this modern day engineer of progress and technology, pure bliss.”
What was the most impactful experience or lesson and why?
“Overall, through my RMYC experience, I was able to grow in teamwork, skills and personally through reflection. Through RMYC, I was able to understand the importance of trail stewardship, beatification and maintenance of our National Parks and forests. Growing up in the suburbs and just minutes away from Washington D.C. I was really able to roam in the wild last summer and I will never forget the invaluable time I had. Most importantly, I learned that it is team work is essential for growth on any level.
In conclusion, I learned to always strive for the best and persist through adversity. To understand that the problems that we face today are minuscule compared to the problems we have faced in the past, and to understand that we can conquer all through teamwork, dedication, and service.”
Would you recommend others to choose AmeriCorps, or your particular program, why or why not?
“Thousands of people everyday enjoy nature in all of its intrinsic beauty, of their own accord, and also through conservation corps programs such as I did with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Colorado. The few weeks I spent there were unlike anything I have ever experienced, and while no walk in the park, proved to be enlightening, calming, and reflective.
Before I could take part in this program however, I was faced with adversity that most who participate in this program don’t have to worry about: familial, and cultural. I struggled to convince my Pakistani family and ultimately myself (through their persistence) that this program was worth it. It was difficult, as most families who come from the south Asian never really take their kids camping, or encourage them to take part in service activities. Instead, the focus is always on studying, and then studying more, for the ultimate goal of making money and being comfortable. It is because of the financial aspects and the cultural shock of participating in something not for money, or for a degree, that I was forced to explain that I understood the importance of studying and getting a job, but I would be doing this program not for those reasons, but for the adventure, for the impact of the work, and the lifelong lessons and reflections that can only be realized by marveling and beholding the beauty of life. I am quite certain that the amount of south Asian or “brown” people participating in environmental stewardship and service is definitely a minority, and it’s not because of a lack of passion, but of societal and familial restraints. The thought of spending my time to “vacation” in the Rocky Mountains and actually working with my hands outside was so outlandish to my mom that at first she flat out said no. The goal of most Pakistani parents is to ensure that their children never have to do manual labor, by applying themselves fully to studies and only that, a comfortable lifestyle could be achieved, there was no need for service or arduous work of this sort in her eyes. My older brothers as well, provided their input and explained how much of an opportunity cost i would be foregoing by participating in this program instead of obtaining a proper IT internship, while we are given a stipend, they placed more value on the high hourly wage of most even entry level IT positions that don’t require any investment or costs to participate in.
With many thoroughly invigorating conversations, I explained why I was pursuing this program; the benefits, the adventure, experience, service, and how valuable it would be to my future. It took some time, but after seeing my resolve and determination and hearing about the amazing impacts and benefits of the program, finally my mother came around and accepted that I was going to do this. I have no regrets, (quite the opposite in fact) and am grateful for her understanding. Going back home I hope to bring with me the lessons of service, perseverance, and positivity with me to my community – local, regional, and even national, and spread the word to encourage a more diverse population to participate and experience the fulfillment of AmeriCorps programs. Deciding I needed a change of scenery this past summer was one of the best decisions I have made thus far.
Yes I would definitely recommend others to choose Americorps and have been doing so. However, I’m not sure if everyone is cut out for the physical and mental grit and hand work that RMYC entails, especially in this city suburban area where many don’t know what it’s like to be out in the country and sleep in a tent for 70 days straight.”
What do you do today?
“I am currently a student at George Mason University, studying information technology.”
How has AmeriCorps impacted your life today?
“Americorps has driven me to find purpose in being a positive force for the future of our nation. I can apply it to all aspects of my life. The dedication, hard work, and commitment to service moves me to accomplish things and strive for the best every day.“