Vassar wasn’t Dan Flynn’s first choice when he applied to college, but he wasn’t on the campus long before he could not imagine being anywhere else. Four years later, Flynn ’13 began his post-Vassar job search but ultimately decided instead to enroll in City Year, an AmeriCorps program whose volunteers work in inner-city schools. It wasn’t long before Flynn realized mentoring sixth-graders in a Boston middle school was exactly what he wanted to be doing.
Flynn, a political science major from Lebanon Township NJ, says his long-term goal has been to practice law. But during his senior year at Vassar he decided he wanted to gain some real-world experience before heading to law school, so he applied for some jobs as a paralegal. Then a friend of a friend told Flynn about her experience as a City Year volunteer. He was intrigued by her enthusiasm, so he decided to apply.
He finished his one-year stint June 25.
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” Flynn says, “but City Year does a good job in its training program of urging you to approach the year with an open heart and an open mind, and the year I spent inside that school was inspiring. The experience will shape what I do for the rest of my life.”
Flynn was one of 18 City Year volunteers at John W. McCormick Middle School in the poverty stricken Dorchester section of Boston. “It’s a big school that needs a lot of extra hands, but it has begun to turn around in the past five years,” Flynn says. “City Year was valued there as the glue that helped hold the school together.”
Given the size of the school and all the tasks he had to perform, Flynn didn’t expect to form close relationships with many students, but that’s what happened. “There was a student who used to come up to me almost every day and give me a hug, and I helped him work through some issues he was having at home,” he says.
Another student was asked during an assembly program to name someone who has been a leader. “He stood up and said, ‘It’s Mr. Flynn because even when I mess up, he helps me try to do better and says he still cares about me,’” Flynn recalls.
The rewards of working with the children came in many forms. “One kid I worked with raised his attendance from 82 percent – he missed more than 40 days – to 97 percent the year I was there,” Flynn says. “And seeing some students who had been getting straight F’s suddenly start getting C’s, that was a huge accomplishment for them.”
Flynn says he expects the experience he gained at City Year to “carry over into almost everything I do.” A member of the Vassar rugby team, Flynn says that when he looked for a team to join in Boston last year, he was happy to find one whose players all engaged in community service projects. “The team was founded on the idea of giving back to the community,” he says. “We conducted food drives and other projects all year, and we gave out Hanukkah and Thanksgiving baskets in the neighborhood where my school was located.”
When his service at City Year ended, he found a job that helped him feel he was continuing to serve the community. He is a paralegal in the United States Attorney’s Office in Boston, working in the economic crimes division. “We’re prosecuting people accused of various kinds of fraud, people who are swindling other people out of a lot of money,” Flynn says. “I feel much more comfortable prosecuting this kind of crime, people accused of violating other people’s trust, than I would against kids caught selling drugs. This work is more rewarding.”
Flynn says his post-graduate experience, both at City Year and in the federal prosecutor’s office, has reinforced something he learned at Vassar: “You can learn something worthwhile from almost anyone if you’re open and willing to listen,” he says. “I came to Vassar in part because I wouldn’t have to take many math courses, but I left with close bonds with the faculty and a strong social conscience. We are taught that it’s all well and good to gain knowledge, to learn about things in theory, but it’s equally important to act on that knowledge.”
Flynn says he’s even reconsidering his route to a law degree, thanks to a suggestion from one of his former teachers, history professor Robert Brigham. “I’m thinking of pursuing a master’s degree in law, with a specialization in human rights, at a college in Ireland,” he says. “It’s something Bob let me know about.”
He says he’s convinced having the urge to do the right thing “is kind of a Vassar thing. People from Vassar go where they’re needed. We believe it’s possible to make the world better.”
Watch a video about Dan Flynn’s City Year experience here.