Service with a Smile: Using Names to Unlock Community

January 5, 2022

By Tian Robinson – AmeriCorps Member at Manchester Community College

How many people can you picture whose names you don’t know? Maybe each morning you share the bus station with a familiar stranger who dressed in an exceptional fashion last week, presumably for a special occasion you declined to ask about. Maybe your regular barista has perfected your order, but on Thursdays your afternoon coffee tastes a little too sweet because they have the day off. Don’t forget the coworker whom you exchange unceremoniously microwave-related remarks on your overlapping lunch breaks. How many more of these nameless faces in your life are coworkers? How many of them were classmates? Can you even remember how many names you’ve forgotten? I have been serving my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Manchester Community College as part of Campus Compact for New Hampshire’s College Access and Success program (lots of titles; I work at a college). Perhaps the best thing I’ve done all year is learn everyone’s name.

My AmeriCorps work has been twofold this year. My overarching goal is to connect with GEAR UP Manchester’s cohort of freshman and sophomore public high school students and improve their awareness of and readiness for pursuing a college education. In order to clearly explain to these students a) what college can offer and b) why they should consider enrolling in one, I spend my days at Manchester Community College (MCC) working with various students, academic departments, and support services, as well as tapping into campus resources that I can include in future programming for the high school group. Before I can showcase the breadth of what can be done at college, I need to find people who are currently involved. Occasionally, this has been difficult. MCC is a commuter campus; throughout the day, hundreds of students ebb and flow from classrooms tucked away in corners without staying an extra minute outside of class hours. But every now and then, I’ll see someone sitting idly on a couch or reading intently from a bulletin board, unaware that they stand out purely by engaging with the campus as more than a pit stop in the race to graduate. Whenever I can, I go up to these students and ask for their name.

More often than not, once I’ve had a conversation with a student, I see them around campus more frequently—of course, it’s possible I just never noticed them before, but I choose to believe that I’m contributing to an overall sense of belonging among those who spend their free time in places like the student union or the library. I know and greet by name nearly every person who I see regularly on campus (except for one lovely lady who works in our campus café, whose name I promptly forgot and now fear I’ve passed the point of no return for asking again). I wear the same MCC-logoed hoodie pretty much every day, initially because it seemed like the most comfortable way to abide by the dress code, but eventually because it became my brand; in fact, it’s become such a recognizable sight on campus that our Campus Activities Board promoted a “Dress Like Tian” day during Spirit Week, which spooked our campus store manager because of how many green hoodies she sold in a day. One of our most mischievous students even ordered a wig online to complete the look.

It may not have been my primary goal for the year, but I think the most meaningful impact I’ve made is in the MCC community. After gradually reopening campus following a full year online, the general mood on campus started off hesitant. People peered at one another through masks across sufficient separation, unsure of which muffled voices sprung from which hidden mouths, even going so far as to avoid the tried-and-true free food that had previously never failed to lure a college student to an event. But I believe the knowledge that one guy in a green hoodie would remember your name and half your face from six feet away brought smiles to students’ eyes and the reassurance that their school is happy to see them.

Tian Robinson (he/him) is the AmeriCorps VISTA Member serving as Student Engagement Coordinator at Manchester Community College in conjunction with GEAR UP Manchester in New Hampshire. He spends his Saturdays bartending and trying not to get distracted by the soccer game playing behind the bar.