I was a civil engineer. I was, and still am, proud of finding success as an engineer at a time when there were very few women in the field. I remember times in college when I was the only female in the class and work situations where I had to continually prove myself to my predominately male colleagues. Despite my accomplishment, the job was stressful, demanding longer than 40 hours a week. On top of that, I was also a mother who often did not make it to the end of her to do list. This meant, self-care wasn’t an option for me. So, I promised myself that after retirement I would commit to take care of myself.
After retiring, I reflected on my life thus far — of how my parents gave up everything when they left their homeland to emigrate to the United States from China. How they had limited opportunities to make an existence for us, but still made sacrifices so that we could assimilate. How they made these possible while overcoming language barriers and cultural differences.
Having seen the struggles of non-English speakers growing up, it was apparent that a good education provided better opportunities. I grew even more passionate about equal education because I believe that it is what truly levels the playing field, regardless of where you come from or what socio-economic class your family is associated with. That’s when I decided to spend my time giving back to my community in a meaningful way. I wanted to encourage and support children who deserved an equal opportunity.
I joined AARP Foundation Experience Corps as a volunteer tutor with the Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center to help develop children’s reading skills. The program was a perfect fit for me because of my belief that stronger reading comprehension will help students build confidence in themselves, give them more opportunities in academia, lead to a better future, and ultimately, allow them to become productive members of our communities. The cherry on top is that I’m granted a sense of fulfillment from watching these students improve.
It is a joy when I get to see my students realize that they can read well and meet our fluency goals. When their confidence jumps in, it is so much fun to watch them blossom and strive for more. Even more meaningful is knowing that I’ve created a connection with this future generation. I know kids today are struggling mentally and socially. Through my time with the students, I know it’s very real and can be debilitating. I’m glad our program is tackling these issues, especially with the national training focusing on things to look for and helpful hints on how to deal with them. I appreciate how self-care for us volunteers and the students are also a national training priority.
That's why I’m confident that Experience Corps’ students will continue to strive for greatness throughout this difficult time. I’m thankful for the time they spend with me, and the valuable gift volunteering gives me. Every volunteering day reminds me of how things could have been a lot different for me had it not been for others helping my family when we first emigrated.
Things could’ve been a lot worse for us, but we turned out well with some kindness and encouragement from our community. Now, it’s my turn to repay the kindness forward through service.
Linda Fong is a returning AARP Foundation Experience Corps volunteer tutor with the Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center serving California’s Sacramento City Unified School District. Working to encourage young readers is quite different from Linda’s engineering career, which included developing large and small transportation projects with the California Department of Transportation. Work on the replacement of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge after the Loma Prieta earthquake was the most notable. Retirement from her career work has provided time to explore other opportunities and interests that include biking, hiking, reading as many books from the local public library as possible, and of course trying to pass along that love of reading to her students through her volunteer work. Her essay first appeared on the AmeriCorps blog and is reprinted here with permission.
About AARP Foundation Experience Corps
AARP Foundation Experience Corps is a community-based volunteer program that empowers people over 50 to serve as tutors to help students become better readers by the end of third grade. It is a proven “triple win,” helping students succeed, older adults thrive, and communities grow stronger.
The program ensures volunteer success through extensive training, peer networks, and ongoing evaluation. Experience Corps employs a structured, evidence-based model that improves the overall reading ability of students by building their fluency, accuracy, and comprehension skills.
Experience Corps and other AARP Foundation programs are in partnership with AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps Seniors and AmeriCorps VISTA members serve with the programs to focus on outcomes, inspiring volunteers to disrupt the cycle of poverty by making a lasting difference in the lives of America’s most vulnerable children.
Find out more about AmeriCorps Seniors programs across the nation.
Read more stories about how our programs have helped people find hope, and about the volunteers who give so much of themselves to help others.