AmeriCorps in Action

Math Corps Tutor - Marlena

The Joy and Possibilities of “Why Not”

There can be a lot of comfort in sticking to what’s familiar, but you never know what you might be missing. Math Corps member Marlena has followed her head and her heart into a rich career but has always left room for exploration. Her work has taken her halfway around the globe to some of the world’s biggest cities and all the way back to her hometown outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where she serves as a tutor at a local elementary school. Math was never one of her interests, but she took a chance and has thrived in the role.  

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a position I genuinely enjoy this much,” she says through a smile. 

Giving Back by Helping Children 

Marlena spent most of her career not focused on numbers, but on reading and writing. She studied Renaissance literature close to home at Emory University before making the jump to New York City, where she earned a master’s and forged a career in the publishing industry. Marlena got settled into professional life in the city thanks in part to the small church she attended. Just a year out of school, someone in the congregation approached her about helping with their preschool for the summer.  

Marlena was curious and had enough spare time, but she wasn’t entirely sure at first. She met with the preschool director, who told her she had seen firsthand how comfortable the kids were around her. She asked Marlena to volunteer. Marlena asked herself: “Why not?” 

More than a decade before her service with Math Corps, she got her first experience working with children looking after the youngest members of her congregation. She soon realized it had been the right decision. 

“I genuinely just loved it: watching the children blossom and grow, watching them move through the world and figure things out,” she says. 

An International Interlude 

It was the first but not last time that a “why not” would land Marlena in role where she flourished. For the next few years, she continued to further her career in publishing while spending her summers taking care of preschoolers at the church. Life found a steady rhythm and the work suited her, but Marlena couldn’t shake a certain thought.  

“I don’t regret very many things in life, but the one decision I did regret was right after college. I had been offered a job in South Korea and I chickened out,” she recalls. So, in the summer of 2013, she asked herself: “Why not get a job in Korea now and see what happens?” 

Another “why not,” this time with much bigger stakes. Marlena accepted a position at the Korean Center for Talented Youth outside of Seoul, where she would teach English to students at levels ranging from preschool to middle school. The risk paid off: she loved it and stayed for two years. 

Marlena was amazed by the children’s ability to learn and grow right before her eyes, something she still sees today in Math Corps. In Korea, she worked with such a wide array of ages that different students had vastly different starting points for their English-speaking skills. However, the one constant was how elastic their minds were.  

“I would have kids – young kids – come in and they spoke absolutely no English. And within weeks they were able to communicate!” says Marlena. “I really enjoyed it.” 

Two Trips Home

At the end of her second year, she made her way back to the US, joining a different publishing house in New York. For the next seven years, she climbed her way up through the industry, working as a senior publicist, publicity manager, and assistant publicity director. As she celebrated a dozen years in the field in 2023, she realized that it was time to move on.  

Marlena moved back to Georgia and began searching for new opportunities. Recalling how much she had enjoyed working in schools, a few AmeriCorps education programs caught her eye. She first reached out about local tutoring opportunities, not for Math Corps, but for Reading Corps.  

“I’m a writer myself and I worked in publishing, so I said, ‘I can do reading!’ They said ‘We actually need math tutors…’ I was like ‘math and I don’t get along,” she laughs. 

The unfounded hesitation that holds many students back from excelling in math also prevents adults from tutoring the subject. The recruiter talked Marlena through the position and stressed that you don’t need to be math whiz or have any special expertise to become a great tutor. Marlena overcame her doubts with a familiar question: “Why not?” 

Finding Joy through Service 

The experience turned out better than she could have hoped. Marlena began working with 4th-8th graders and dove into helping them build their math skills. After a few months, she knew she had made the right choice. 

“God, I had forgotten how much I enjoy working with children,” she says. “I forgot how much I genuinely enjoy this!” 

Equipped with Math Corps training, she has been able to make an impact on the lives of dozens of students. Marlena has found a great knack for balancing students’ needs for flexibility and responsibility. She learned firsthand that students letting off some steam or getting out a little energy can go a long way to keeping them engaged for the rest of the session. That and the promise of a snack if they behave. Marlena’s school allows tutors to bring food to sessions and her students do their best work when Takis are on the line.  

Marlena has found AmeriCorps service to be deeply rewarding. Whatever uncertainty she had felt disappeared as soon as she got feedback directly from students. 

“I have kids coming up to me who aren’t in tutoring – whose names I don’t know – and they’re like ‘can I come to tutoring?’” says Marlena. “It takes like a certain kind of magic to make me laugh while testing my patience at the same time and these kids just do it.” 

Back for More

Marlena has already committed to another year with Math Corps. She started halfway through this school year but will be back for the full year starting this fall. She doesn’t want to miss out on seeing her students grow. 

“Their math struggles have nothing to do with their level of intelligence: it’s just what resources they have available to them,” she says. “Once they have the resources and you’re able to unpack it with them, then then you start to see those changes.” 

If you want to make a difference in the lives of students in your community like Marlena, learn more about Math Corps openings at our website here. Or if you’re ready to apply – click here!

There’s only one question to ask yourself: why not? 

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