After college, new graduates can be presented with so many unique opportunities- jobs, internships, and volunteer positions. Why did you decide to pursue a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA?

During my undergrad at Albright College, there was a VISTA for the Albright and Thirteenth and Union Elementary School Partnership. During my junior and senior year volunteered as a Ready Set Read tutor at Thirteenth and Union Elementary School. After graduating from college, I knew I wanted to gain professional experience while also doing something that was meaningful and impactful. VISTA was the right fit for me in order to accomplish my goal of gaining experience and exposure to different professions.

The VISTA program focuses on alleviating poverty while the SJU Biology Department Outreach programs promote access to STEM education. Can you tell us a bit more about your project and how you are accomplishing these goals?

Saint Joseph’s University Department of Biology throughout a number of years has worked with Gompers Elementary School and Overbrook High School, both schools with a large number of students living at or below the poverty line. The main goal of my VISTA position is to build an infrastructure that uses SJU college student involvement in K-12 STEM education to strengthen the connection between Gompers Elementary and Overbrook High School, according to the 2018 graduating 8th grade class at Gompers a 3rd attended Overbrook. My project is all about sustainability meaning that even after the VISTA project is done and the last VISTA has left the work that has been done can easily be transferred over and still be used.

With so many community partnerships and university volunteers, building sustainable infrustructure with the existing STEM programs must be difficult. What does your typical week look like?

Working at a University and with multiple partners can be exciting and different. Every week there is almost something different happening whether it’s a field trip where students are coming to SJU or a one day conference. This past year my primary focus has been the creation of training materials for the college students who will be serving at the schools. For this past year, I have done research on various different topics that were considered a need for our volunteers and partners such as trauma-informed care, childhood behavior disorders, and many more. My typical week mainly consists of me researching and creating materials and meeting with students, faculty, and community partners to better understand their needs. 

For someone thinking about applying, what are some benefits of participating in a VISTA year?

There are many benefits of doing a VISTA year through AmeriCorps, CCNYPA, and my site location. This year I have had various opportunities to grow personally and professionally. Through CCNYPA I have had opportunities for professional development to participate in webinars that covered a wide area of topics including volunteer recruitment and management, understanding poverty, and preparing for life after VISTA. I have also had opportunities to attend retreats that would allow me to meet and network with VISTAs at different campuses. AmeriCorps has also given me opportunities to take classes that would count as college credit for free to enhance my professional development. SJU professionally has allowed me the opportunity to attend different workshops that both pertain to my project and to my personal interest. During this year I have had the opportunity to go to workshops through the Philadelphia Higher Education fund that discussed Gerrymandering and Global Information Systems (GIS). This workshop was somewhat related to my work along with my personal interest as I hold my degree in Political Science and International Relations and during course work, gerrymandering was always an interest of mine. My supervisor and colleagues have also helped me gain experience that I can use in any professional setting. Personal benefits as a VISTA, AmeriCorps also gives benefits to VISTA members including a health care plan, a living allowance, an end of the year education award or stipend, loan forbearance or deference, and non-competitive eligibility.

While VISTA is a paid position, the living allowance is based on the poverty rates for a single individual in your geographic region. How do you live on a VISTA Budget?

Part of being a VISTA is living like the people that you would be serving. With this, VISTAs receive a living allowance that enables them to live frugally like the community members that they are serving. Living on a VISTA budget can be tough but definitely manageable. One thing that I am very thankful for is my host site helping me find low-cost housing on campus. This has been a tremendous help because I am able to save more money or put it towards other expenses. Living on a VISTA budget I have also learned to prioritize what is important and what is not so important in regards to material goods and social events. There are other options though if money is tight including receiving government benefits including SNAP and child care that need it.

What has been the most challenging part of your VISTA year, so far?

Transitioning from college into the working world has definitely been a challenge for me. During college, there is a lot of freedom and you are surrounded by your friends and people who are going through the same thing as you. Adjusting to the working life schedule was very difficult, because it is a lot different than the familiar college schedule. In college you could change your class schedule around if you needed to, but in the working world your schedule is set and you make the adjustments around work.  However, I became more and more accustomed to work life and the changes that came with working. My supervisors and colleagues have helped me acclimate to my new role and have also taught me skills that I can take with me whatever step is next.

What has been your favorite memory from your VISTA year, so far?

There have been some really awesome experiences during my VISTA year. My favorite memory so far has definitely been dropping the crayfish off at Gompers for the 4th graders. The students were learning about the lifecycle and habitat of the crayfish. Seeing the excitement and readiness to learn more about science was definitely a highlight of my VISTA year.

For anyone thinking about pursuing a year of service, what advice would you give to the future VISTAs?

My advice would be to keep an open mind during your VISTA year. There are many times of triumph that makes your year worth it, but there are some trying times. Just know that everything that you are doing has a purpose and does make an impact even if you do not see it right away.

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