Working for a community organization is great. You get the opportunity to immerse yourself in a tight-knit group of people who usually share common goals and values. But what happens when you’re a new person in an already developed community? What is your role? If nobody assigns you one, how do you forge one for yourself? How can you become an integral part of the group dynamic without standing (or stomping) on anyone’s toes?
At the beginning of my summer internship, I faced this exact problem. I joined the organization using a unique path and I missed the two weeks of training that other new employees had gone through because I was away on a study abroad program. As a result, I started on the first day feeling lost and intrusive. Fortunately (and unfortunately, of course,) several of my co-workers were absent for the first two weeks of our summer camp, so I had to dive in head-first. I taught children lessons that I was not necessarily ready to teach, began making decisions as to how the kids’ days would be structured best, and let the children know that I was there to be a constant resource for them throughout the summer.
I felt proud of the rate I had assimilated to the environment and informal expectations surrounding my job, but once my co-workers returned I felt like I was stepping on some serious toes. Who was I to give them updates on the kids they already knew so well? Why was I the one making decisions about what activities the kids should do when I wasn’t the one who spent the whole rest of the summer planning them?
What I decided to do was stick to my guns – something I am admittedly not the best at doing. I planted my feet in the role I had already assumed out of necessity while making sure everyone knew I as open for constructive criticism. I sought out information and advice from my co-workers so they knew that I was constantly trying to learn and improve my ability to help the kids that meant so much to them. I earned their respect by being diligent in my tasks and firm but patient with the children.
Since I often have a hard time speaking up, I way too often find myself in ambiguous roles. This time, though, I am proud to have sought out my own path.