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AmeriCorps Alums' Atlanta chapter members volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Members of AmeriCorps Alums' Atlanta chapter volunteered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2012, tackling neighborhood yard cleanups and home repairs for senior citizens. Ben Duda '99, executive director for Americorps Alums, is fourth from left.

Discovering my pathway to service at Cornell

Not quite off the turnip truck, I arrived in Ithaca in fall 1995 from East Amherst, N.Y. (a suburb of Buffalo). Replete with a wardrobe of L.L. Bean plaid shirts, jeans and "Buffalo Bills AFC Champions" T-shirts, I was in for a bit of culture shock from my downstate brothers and sisters. I had chosen Cornell's ILR School because it was a great feeder program for law school, and my father said that ILR cost the same as other SUNY schools but had the resources and cachet of a leading international university.

Either way, my time at Cornell, like that of many others, was about a process of successes and failures over four years of trying to find my fit and my way forward.

My first breakthrough was building an affinity for Professor Michael Evan Gold and his Socratic method of teaching. In addition to being a trial lawyer with Supreme Court experience, Gold was a former Peace Corps volunteer. He taught My Brother's Keeper – Philanthropy and Volunteerism, which required our attendance at a guest lecture by Harris Wofford. Then the CEO of the Corporation for National Service, Wofford oversaw the AmeriCorps national service programs that power nonprofits like Teach for America and Citizen Schools, and engage thousands of (largely young) Americans in domestic national service. Wofford had previously served as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, had been an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and was appointed by President Kennedy to help launch the Peace Corps. Wofford's speech was an incredible tale of being a part of critical points in U.S. history and answering the call to serve.

I left Olin Hall with an AmeriCorps pamphlet in hand, wondering if law school was still in my future. Instead, through Cornell, I found a pathway to service.

A CALS education class soon placed me at DeWitt Middle School as part of a weekly volunteering assignment with an after-school homework help program. A summer job with the Tompkins County Economic Opportunity Commission kept me on campus for a summer, managing a diverse corps of high school students ranging from children of professors to residents of local public housing. That summer the youth corps built a playground, rebricked a sidewalk and organized community cleanups.

So after graduation, while friends went into law school and banking, I decided to join AmeriCorps. For two years, I traveled across the mid-Atlantic and West Coast, serving with local nonprofits in different cities for two to 12 weeks with AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps). My analytical and writing skills, developed at Cornell, were now put to use supporting Habitat for Humanity in Long Beach, Calif., and York, Pa., and housing organizations in Cincinnati, Vallejo, Calif., and Washington, D.C.

A decade later, I'm the executive director for AmeriCorps Alums. I get to share my passion for my experience by connecting the more than 775,000 who have served in AmeriCorps since 1994. This national network includes chapters across the country where AmeriCorps alumni are finding new ways to serve or alumni now working in the for-profit and nonprofit business sectors. We even recently recognized 12 notable AmeriCorps Alums at a White House event.

I returned to Ithaca in spring 2011 to share with Professor Gold's class on Ethics at Work my observations on the ethical dilemmas that might befall a nonprofit seeking corporate and philanthropic funding. I also met with students through the Cornell Public Service Center who asked about joining AmeriCorps after graduation. I was proud to see that the same service ethos was thriving on campus.

My Cornell experience set me on a pathway of service. I'm glad to know that future generations of Buffalonians, Oneontans or Greece-Athenians, as well as citizens from across the globe, will have opportunities like I did to learn and grow at Cornell, in whatever direction it takes them.

Ben Duda '99 lives in Atlanta. Did you serve in AmeriCorps as a VISTA, NCCC member or with one of the thousands of AmeriCorps grantee organizations since 1994? (Or even before AmeriCorps, as a VISTA volunteer in the '60s, '70s or '80s?) Share your story at

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